Greenland (Denmark) 2013

Parliamentary elections were held in Greenland on March 12, 2013. All 31 members of Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut/Landsting), elected for four year terms by proportional representation were up for reelection. Greenland is a constituent country within Denmark. It was granted home rule in 1979, and was granted extensive autonomy and self-rule in 2009 following a referendum in 2008. Denmark retains control of foreign affairs, national defense, the police force, the judiciary and monetary policy (Denmark provides a block grant which still accounts for over half of public spending by the regional government). Greenlandic is now the sole official language, and the regional government has full control over the island’s rich subsoil resources. Despite being part of Denmark, Greenland is not part of the EU – it withdrew from the EEC in 1985.

The vast majority (85-88%) of Greenland’s population are Inuits, who speak Greenlandic, an Eskimo-Aleut language. The remaining 12% or so are European Danish immigrants. Huge swathes of Greenland are covered by a vast ice sheet, although climate change is slowly reducing the size of the ice sheet. All settlements are concentrated along the ice-free coast, and almost all of these settlements are located along the western coast. Most of remote northeastern Greenland is unincorporated, forming the Northeast Greenland National Park.

Greenland was colonized by Denmark beginning in the 1700s, and was ruled by Danish colonial administrators until 1953 (it was occupied by the US during World War II). During this time, Danish was the language of the colonial administrators and a small local elite (Danes born in Greenland or assimilated Inuits), while Greenlandic remained widely used in small Inuit hamlets and was taught in schools and used in churches. After Greenland was integrated into Denmark as a county in 1953, a modernization campaign was launched resulting in major migration, often only semi-voluntary, from hamlets to larger urban centres. The government also promoted the Danish language, pushing an aggressive ‘danishification’ campaign which saw Danish rather than Greenlandic taught in schools. Greenland finally gained home rule in 1973. The new regional government reversed the linguistic policies, instead driving a Greenlandization/inuitization campaign which replaced Danish with Greenlandic in schools. In 1994, Danish was relegated to a foreign language in all schools outside the capital, Nuuk, which has a large Danish minority.

Most Greenlanders speak both Greenlandic and Danish, some Inuits even speak only Greenlandic. Nevertheless, Danish is still widely used in business and administration and it remains associated with the upper social strata in local society. Unilingual Greenlandic speakers are often at the lowest level, with poor education and either unemployed or with a low-paying job. Bilinguals and unilingual Danes tend to form the business, political, social and cultural elites. The local population faces challenges such as low education, a lack of opportunities, low wages, unemployment and crime.

Greenland’s natural governing party between 1979 and 2009 was Siumut (Forward), a left-wing social democratic party which had led the charge for home rule in the 1970s. Being in government so long, it was accussed of corruption and nepotism in administration. Such issues contributed to its defeat in the 2009 election, won by Inuit Ataqatigiit (Inuit Community/Community of the People), a socialist and separatist which was founded in 1976. The IA’s leader, Kuupik Kleist, became Prime Minister.

The Democrats (Demokraatit) and Atassut (Feeling of Community) both lost heavily in the 2009 election, losing about 10% of the vote apiece from the 2005 elections. The social liberal Democrats are a predominantly Danish party which oppose independence, most of its leaders are Danes but it does not receive homogeneous support from Danish expats in Greenland. It won 16% in 2002 and then placed second, with 22.8% in 2005, but its support fell to 12.7%. Atassut, a right-wing and agrarian party which is similarly opposed to independence, used to be the main centre-right rival to Siumut in the 1980s, winning over 40% of the vote. But since the 1990s the party has been in free fall, having seen its support shrink from 30% in 1991-1995 to barely 11% and 3 seats in 2009. The smaller Kattusseqatigiit (Association of Candidates, K) has been represented in Parliament since 1995, peaking at 4 seats in 1999 and one seat since then. It is primarily a personalist party led by Anthon Frederiksen, the former mayor of Ilulissat. IA formed a coalition with the Democrats and K after the last election.

Greenland has rich and, to a certain extent, untapped mineral riches – both onshore and offshore. Oil companies have already spent billions exploring for large reserves of offshore oil. On land, mining companies are clamoring for access to gold and iron ore deposits; but also large and unexploited ‘rare earth’ elements which are key ingredients in modern smartphones or weapons. The IA government has stuck to its zero-tolerance policy on uranium mining, which bans the mining or sell of radioactive resources such as uranium. For a remote and sparsely populated country economically dependent on fishing and its former colonial master, Greenland is now swept up by the winds of change as it finds itself at the heart of a mineral boom with major geopolitical ramifications. Foreign mining companies, including giants such as Alcoa, London Mining PLC, are battling for mining concessions. China has taken a particular interest in Greenland, especially in its rare earth reserves. Although China currently has 90% of the world’s rare earth elements, they will not be able to keep up with Chinese, let alone global, demand in the long-term. The EU and Denmark are concerned by China’s efforts to gain a foothold in Greenland’s economy and the Arctic, and have pressured – unsuccessfully – the Greenlandic government to block Chinese access to rare earth elements, some of which are currently explored by an Australian-based mining company.

The Greenlandic Parliament approved the so-called ‘big-scale law’ on mining a few weeks ago. The law makes it easier and cheaper for foreign mining companies to start large projects in Greenland. Under the new law, any project worth over 5 billion Danish kroner would require a license from the regional government and would need to undertake an environmental and social impact inquiry. The most controversial aspect of the new law is that it allows foreign companies to contract cheaper foreign workers. The law requires that the foreign workers be paid at the local minimum wage and would be entitled to local labour rights (right to strike, collective bargaining), but because the law also allows employers to deduct costs such as insurance and food from their wages, they would likely end up being paid less than local workers. That part of the law, however, is in limbo as it will require approval from the Danish Parliament, which retains control over immigration policy. Proponents of the law argue that the law and the new mineral boom will significantly reduce Greenland’s dependence on Danish grants and diversify the country’s economy. Opponents are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of mining development and control by foreign mining giants, but also criticize the speed at which the law was pushed through. The ‘importation’ of 500-700 foreign workers in a country of 57,000 has also raised concerns amongst the local population.

Turnout was 74.2%, up 2.9% since 2009.

Siumut (S) 42.8% (+16.3%) winning 14 seats (+5)
Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) 34.4% (-9.3%) winning 11 seats (-3)
Atassut (A) 8.1% (-2.7%) winning 2 seats (-1)
Partii Inuit (PI) 6.4% (+6.4%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Democrats (D) 6.2% (-6.5%) winning 2 seats (-2)
Association of Candidates (K) 1.1% (-2.7%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Others 0% (-0.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)


Four years after being kicked out of office in monumental fashion, Siumut, led by Aleqa Hammond, roared back to power in Greenland. The party increased its vote share by 16%, taking 43% of the vote and 14 seats while the incumbent IA won only 34%, down over 9 points, and 11 seats. The governing IA-D-K coalition also lots its majority, with both of its coalition partners losing votes and seats.

Mining and the prospect of foreign workers were major issues in this elections and they contributed to Siumut’s victory. Most politicians agree on the exploration of mineral resources, but the big-scale law has stirred controversy. Siumut argued that there was too much secrecy about the various mining projects and found the government too eager to push through the law and too soft on foreign companies. Siumut ran on a populist platform which promised to demand more royalties on resources and forcing tougher rules on potential foreign investors. It also tapped into concerns that the new law was giving too much powers to foreign companies.

Inuit fishermen and seal hunters, the traditional backbone of the old economy, feel increasingly marginalized and forgotten with all these new developments. They oppose new fishing quotas, poor market access for seal skins and restrictions over harpoon guns for whale hunting. IA was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to take heed of their concerns; while Siumut promised that it would work to make economic development ‘fairer’ for all, city dwellers and villagers alike. Siumut, however, does not share IA’s steadfast opposition to uranium mining and has said that it would be open to allowing uranium mining if the ore contains a maximum 0.1% uranium oxide..

Cultural concerns also played a role in the vote. The potential ‘massive’ influx of foreign, predominantly Chinese, workers as part of new contracts (including a concession to London Mining PLC which would supply iron ore to China and employ Chinese foreign workers). In a small and largely ethnically homogeneous country, the prospect of 500-700 cheap foreign workers moving in – even on a temporary basis – scared many, who feared that they will take jobs away from locals and undermine Greenland’s ancient hunting and fishing tradition.

IA likely lost some votes to a new party, Partii Inuit, a very left-wing and separatist party formed recently by IA dissidents. The Inuit Party were the most vocal in their opposition to the big-scale law, calling for a referendum on the issue.

On the map, Siumut won every ‘city’ (the second level divisions behind the 3 municipalities) with the exception of Aasiaat (the fifth largest city), Illoqqortoormiut on the east coast (where Atassut won) and Nuuk (the largest city and capital). Siumut swept every other part of the country, likely benefiting from fishermen and hunters’ opposition to the big-scale law. Interestingly, IA did not lose as much in Nuuk – it won first place by a mile and its vote only fell by 5%. The capital city is booming and rapidly changing, benefiting from the mineral boom. Perhaps urban voters in Greenland’s largest city (over 15,000 people) were more favourable to the incumbent government’s mining policies, which has brought them tangible benefits?

Northeastern Greenland, in blue on the map, is covered by the world’s largest national park and has no permanent inhabitants. Unfortunately, polar bears and seals can’t vote. The small blue dot on the northwestern coast is Thule Air Base, a US Air Force base.

Greenland is changing extremely rapidly now, and its economy and society will likely be transformed by the mineral boom. The new status in 2009 brought the island ever closer to full independence, and many have argued that the mining boom will allow Greenland to become more autonomous from Denmark and move towards full independence. Yet, the transition to either full political independence or economic diversification is problematic. The current mining boom could allow Greenland to become a functioning independent state, but many Greenlanders are asking – at what price? There is much reluctance to sacrifice traditions or the old economy in favour of sovereignty, and many fear that Greenland could be exchanging Danish rule for rule by the special interests.

Posted on March 13, 2013, in Denmark, Greenland, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I know this isn’t the right post to leave it under, but I was wondering what your view on the coalition Netanhyahu formed this week? The one without the participation of *any* ultra-Orthodox party, a first in Israel (I think).

  2. @Volkov: Seems like the government’s focus will be to abolish the draft exemption for the ultra-orthodox (or find a compromise on that so that the ultra-orthodox parties don’t get too pissed and break bridges with Likud). I’m not sure if it will last for a long time after that, given that Yesh Atid might turn sour on the govt once that stuff is done. Netanhyahu’s good at the coalition stuff so he might be able to get the Shas or something to join him in a year.

    Ben Gurion’s last cabinet, from 1961 to 1963, was the first one to have ultra-orthodox parties, ftr. Before that they had the religious Zionists/national religious, but no ultra-orthodox.

  3. Thanks for your overview of the Greenlandic elections. I found it hard to find many written about it in English, and it’s always easier to read about this sort of stuff in your native language. I will send it to my father!

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