Explainer: The Greenland Parliamentary Elections – 2021

Greenland’s Parliament chamber (Inatsisartut) [Photo via the Greenland Parliament website]

by Mingming Shi

How Does the Greenlandic Parliamentary Election System Work?

Greenland is one of the two autonomous territories, (the other being the Faroe Islands), within the Kingdom of Denmark, and its form of government is representative democracy, based on the results of elections to the Parliament (Inatsisartut in Greenlandic).

Most of the candidates for Parliament are affiliated with their respective political parties, however there are also individuals who are qualify without a party affiliation, under certain conditions. There are five main provisions to be a legal voter in the country’s parliamentary elections, namely, one should have Danish Kingdom citizenship, permanent residence in Greenland, have lived in Greenland for at least six months, be at least eighteen years old and not be incarcerated.

Members of the Parliament of Greenland are elected by direct and equal ballots. To be more specific, voters cast their ballots directly for the party or candidate which they wish to support, and, each ballot has the same and equal influence on the outcome. This is a proportional representation system, making use of the d’Hondt variation. It is very difficult under these conditions for a single party to govern alone, and so multi-party coalitions are the norm in Greenlandic governance. 

Greenland has held parliamentary elections since 1979 when the Home-Rule Act, (which was then superseded by the Self-Rule Act in 2009), came into force. The island used to be divided into eight constituencies: Central Greenland, South Greenland, North Greenland, as well as Ittoqqortoormiit, Qaanaaq, Tasiilaq, Upernavik and Uummannaq.

In 1998, all of these were merged into one single constituency, which has been the case since then. This amalgamation was to strengthen the awareness for the members of parliament of the need to consider Greenland’s interests as a whole, rather than focusing on specific regions, as later argued by Niels Thomsen, a politician with the Demokraatit (Democrats) party.

The revised system may also carry some disadvantages, as remarked by Naaja Nathanielsen from the Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) Party, who noted that voters in smaller communities may encounter more difficulties to convey their representations in the assembly, because of their lower ballot bases.

The Greenlandic Parliament consists of thirty-one seats, which means that it takes a minimum of sixteen seats to form a majority government. Terms are for a maximum of four years, though early elections can be called- and are the norm- if a government finds a majority against it or if the sitting prime minister decides to call an early election.

For example, an election came unexpectedly in April this year, as the administration of Kim Kielsen of the Siumut Party, who had been Prime Minister since 2014, collapsed due to the withdrawal of one of its coalition partners, Demokraatit. The internal unrest within Siumut, the largest party in the previous coalition over the Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) mining project and over the political leadership, also led to an early election being called

Who Was Running in the Election Campaign?

Among the 189 candidates approved to run for office this year, one was acting as an independent, and the rest were from the parties of Atassut, Demokratiit, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), Naleraq, Nunatta Qitornai (NQ), Samarbejdspartiet / Suleqatigiissitsisut (SA) and Siumut.

For a party or candidate to be elected to the Parliament, the party itself should gain close to 1/31 – or 3.22% – of the total votes given. As parties will waste a small number of votes- the surplus for the last seat under the d’Hondt seat variation- in reality a party can win a seat with slightly less than 1/31 of the votes.

In this election, 3.22% of the votes given equalled 874 votes, due to the low voter turnout. During the 2018 elections, 945 votes would have been needed by a party to secure a seat. After the last parliamentary elections in 2018, SA received 1,193 votes, and Nunatta Qittornai 1,002 votes, both securing one seat each. In this election, SA only received 375 votes and Nunatta Qittornai 639, with neither party securing a seat.

Out of the total population of 56,421 in Greenland, there were 41,126 qualified voters in the election this year. 

What Did the Parties Advocate? 

Two major issues in vote this year were the question of independence, and methods and timetable for achieving this, from the Kingdom of Denmark, the other was the future of the Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) mining project in southern Greenland. The latter issue had attracted a great deal of international attention, given that the mining project was established to potentially extract both uranium and rare earth elements for the global market.

Even though the Greenlandic independence movement has evolved for several decades, the methods of best achieving the goal have been debated amongst the parties, with some not regarding the pursuit of independence as best for Greenland.

Political parties also commented on this subject during this parliamentary election. Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the head of NQ, claimed that he had a eleven-step policy to achieve independence for the island, while Siumut and Demokratiit had conveyed their ambition to this goal as well, albeit with differing timetables.

However, Atassut and Samarbejdspartiet / SA were much more lukewarm than the other parties about future sovereignty for Greenland, asserting that other issues within Greenlandic society should be better prioritised.

The Kvanefjeld project for mining rare earth elements (REEs), and uranium as a side product, lies in the Southwest region. In December 2020, the large mining project went into the public consultation phase of the extraction application process. In addition to public opinion, local political parties hold various attitudes toward the project. During the campaign, Siumut reiterated their support and Demokraatit also said they would be okay with it as long as it complied with legislation, while IA reconfirmed their opposition against it.

One of the many other noteworthy ideas proposed during the campaign was the proposal to reduce the current thirty-one seats to twenty-one in the Parliament, as suggested by Bo Martinsen, a candidate from Demokraatit. He stated that politicians must take the lead in reducing expenses for the benefit of ordinary taxpayers.

This consideration was also backed by the leader of the party, Jens-Frederik Nielsen, even though he did not comment on this specific number. He compared the data between Greenland and Denmark, stating that one parliamentary member represented 1800 people in Greenland, while in Denmark, there is a ratio of one MP per 32,000 residents.

What is the Result of the Election and What Does It Mean? 

With a landslide victory, IA has ensured twelve seats in the Parliament, and was granted the right to form a government. According to party leader, and likely Prime Minister-Designate, Múte B. Egede, his wish was for a stable government which would last for the next four years, (or one full governmental term), given the fragile coalitions in the recent past.

The election has been also covered extensively in the Danish media, which were interested in further understanding where the political winds this part of the Kingdom will now be directed. Detailed analysis can be read in the recent OtC article recently written by Mikkel Schøler.

[Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash]

What Next?

Right after the vote, IA began conversations with other sides in the Parliament in the hopes of quickly constructing a coalition which would be viable and durable. The possibility of a ‘grand coalition’ with Siumut will did not come to pass, and according to Múte B. Egede, Siumut would not have been an optimal partner for the four-year cooperation pact that he had envisioned. Demokraatit also announced the termination of negotiations with IA, stating that the policy gaps between it an IA were too big to overcome.

Ultimately, IA formed a government with the populist Naleraq party, securing a bare sixteen seat majority. The conservative, and unionist, Atassut party then indicated that it would act as parliamentary supporter of the new two-party coalition, though their opposition to Greenlandic independence kept them from being a full partner.

There are at least two questions which should next be considered regarding the new government. The first is how stable will it be without Siumut, which has traditionally been the biggest party in Greenlandic politics, and the core of numerous previous coalitions.

Second, IA has expressed its strong objection to the Kuannersuit mining project and had vowed to terminate it upon gaining office. The new coalition agreement [in Danish] between IA and Naleraq has stressed that the incoming Greenlandic government will ban the extraction of all resources containing radioactive material. However, given that almost all rocks contain radioactive material to some degree, that stance will still need to be elucidated.

As Greenland faces both domestic challenges and ongoing scrutiny on the international level, the new government, and Greenlanders themselves, will have much to do before the dust even settles.

The author wishes to thank Mikkel Schøler and Marc Lanteigne for their assistance with the preparation of this article.