Pro-independence parties get 80% of votes in Greenlandic election

Democratic socialist party opposed to uranium mining set to form government · Plans for independence from Denmark slowing down

Greenlandic capital Nuuk.
Greenlandic capital Nuuk. Author: Oliver Schauf
A pro-independence left-wing party has won the early election to the Parliament of Greenland held on 6 April and is set to lead the government of this self-governing island of Denmark. In total, 80% of the votes cast went to pro-independence candidates.

The Inuit Ataqatigiit party (IA, democratic socialist) has won 36.6% of the votes and thus overtook Siumut (pro-independence social democrat), which won 29.4% of the votes. Another pro-independence party, Naleraq (centrist), came third with 12.0% of the votes. Another secessionist party, Nunatta Qitornai, was left out of parliament with 2.4% of the votes.

On the unionist side, the Democrats (liberals) received the most votes with 9.1%, followed by Atassut (liberal conservatives) with 6.9%.

The new Parliament reflects the growth of the pro-independence bloc. Of 31 seats in the Greenlandic legislature, secessionist parties will have 26 (IA 12, Siumut 10 and Naleraq 4) while unionists will have 5 (Democrats 3 and Atassut 2).

In the 2018 election, the unionist bloc won 8 seats, while the pro-independence parties secured 23. Siumut then won 9 seats and formed a coalition government with junior parties Democrats and Nunatta Qitornai.

What divides Siumut and IA?

Greenland’s two main parties are left-wing, both favour a gradual path towards independence, and believe that the local economy should be diversified before seceding from Denmark. But their stance on the Kvanefjeld mining project has separated them for years.

Kvanefjeld is a rare-earth and uranium deposit in southern Greenland. Rare-earths are elements essential for a wide range of technologies, such as electric cars, wind turbines, magnets, lasers, various types of batteries, and crystals. These technologies are used for civilian as well as military purposes. China extracts more than 80% of rare-earths currently entering world markets.

Siumut supports mining the deposit. “If the extraction does not endanger [people’s] health and nature, it should be started and generate profits,” the party’s election manifesto reads. Those profits, Siumut leader Erik Jensen says, could contribute significantly to reducing Greenland’s dependence on subsidies from Denmark, and would bring the island closer to its aspiration to become an independent state.

IA, espousing a more environmentalist approach, opposes mining the deposit because of the presence of uranium there. “We accept mining as an option, but with high environmental requirements,” the IA manifesto says. The party says it prefers to allow mining in other deposits and strengthen other productive sectors, including fisheries and tourism, as well as push for new trade agreements with several countries.

Anyway, neither of the two major Greenlandic parties sees independence as a feasible project for the next 10 years. In fact, neither in their election manifestos nor during the campaign have there been any promises in this regard. Both claim that mining —whether on Siumut’s terms or IA’s— should lead to an improvement in the quality of life in Greenland, where serious shortcomings in infrastructures, housing and mental health exist.

A constitution for Greenland is currently being drafted, a first version of which is expected by 2022. This constitution will not immediately lead to independence, but will probably establish the legal path to achieve it. Both IA and Siumut want Denmark to devolve to Greenland a few powers it still exercises in the years to come. And it cannot be ruled out that, in the long run, the mainstream Greenlandic parties will eventually accept some kind of free association status with Denmark.

This is a remarkable paradigm shift if compared to expectations 10 years ago. At that time, after Denmark had accepted that Greenland could decide when it wanted to become independent, a wave of optimism shocked the Arctic island. Then, it was believed, fast and easy exploitation of mineral resources would allow Greenland to achieve independence in 2021, the 300th anniversary of the beginning of Danish colonisation.

An island in a strategic location

The possibility of Greenland becoming a leading producer of rare-earths has raised the interest of several powers: the United States —former President Donald Trump went so far as to propose buying the island—, the European Union, or China itself, which has a stake in the Australian company Greenland Minerals, which holds the initial licence for the Kvanefjeld project.

The eventual mining of rare-earths in Greenland —not only found in the Kvanefjeld deposit— could weaken China’s de facto monopoly on this market, although this would require the Arctic island —or another partner— to develop rare-earth processing industries, which are currently concentrated in the Asian giant.

Geography is also key to understanding why so much interest is raised in Greenland’s future. Climate change is likely to open up new Arctic sea trade routes, and major powers are interested in projecting themselves in the region. The countries with jurisdiction over Arctic waters are Russia, the USA (via Alaska), Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), and Norway.

In military terms, the United States maintain their northernmost base in the world in northern Greenland: Qaanaaq, or Thule, which is part of the US-Canada shared missile surveillance and aerospace defence system. In October 2020, the United States, Denmark and Greenland signed an agreement on the Thule base that should lead to closer economic and military cooperation between the three actors.