Become a Patron!

Greenland Parliamentary Elections: Independence on the Horizon

Citizens of Greenland will be heading to polls on 6 April to cast two votes: one to elect municipal councils and another in a snap election for the Greenlandic parliament. The parliamentary elections offer a much-needed opportunity for Greenlanders to bring a tumultuous parliamentary term to a close for good. In the years since the parliamentary elections in late 2018, Greenland has seen the party composition of the government change four times—ultimately leaving the Prime Minister Kim Kielsen (Siumut~S&D) without a majority and forcing him to call for a snap election.

Independence—At a Pace or Another

An issue that looms large in politics in the region is that of independence. While independence was contested in the past, an independent Greenland has solidified over the last few decades as the ultimate objective. But with a strict condition: opinion polls have regularly shown that the steady majority for independence is only there should it mean that the living standards would not worsen. The parliamentary make-up reflects the political fact that parties favouring total political separation from Denmark hold a comfortable majority in the Greenlandic parliament in election after election. The only point of contention is the speed. Some parties—like relatively young Nunatta Qitornai (~NI) and Naleraq (*)—would favour a more or less swift process of independence. The traditional heavyweight governing party Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit (~LEFT) opt for a more gradual approach to independence, with diversifying the economy further first.

Conversely, support for parties calling for the continuation of the union with Denmark has dwindled during the decades of self-rule. Atassut (~RE) racked almost half of the vote in the 1980s and originally was against even any self-determination for Greenland whatsoever. As time went on, the party has adopted more supportive tones of autonomy while still under the union. That, however, has not stopped a drastic decrease in its support figures; Atassut received only six per cent of the vote in 2014 and 2018 elections.

The status of the main unionist party has since the turn of the millennium been gradually contested by Demokraatit (~RE). In the 2018 elections Demokraatit received three times more votes and seats than Atassut. A third minor party in the spectrum of Greenlandic unionism is Suleqatigiissitsisut (~RE), more commonly known by its Danish or English name, Samarbejdspartiet or Coöperation Party respectively. The party is a rather recent split of Demokraatit and elected a single MP in 2018.

The political work towards independence is ongoing. All the parties have jointly established a commission to draft the Greenlandic constitution, though Suleqatigiissitsisut has later withdrawn from the commission and Atassut has called for closing it prematurely. The commission drafting the constitution is expected to present the draft to the Greenlandic parliament in 2022. 

Greenland received permission and assurance from Denmark in an updated self-rule law in 2009 that they can declare independence whenever they feel they are ready to do so, provided that Greenland holds a referendum about the matter. The independence is likely to take longer than expected and was the initial objective of early 2020s. Diversification of the fishing-dependent economy—occupying a central place in preventing a fall in living standards that is deemed the condition for independence—has recently faced setbacks.

Wrapping Up the Tumultuous Term

The elections in 2018 saw two new parties entering the parliament as well as pluralising the chamber in general. The two largest parties—centre-left Siumut and left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit—saw their seat numbers shrink in favour of smaller parties like Demokraatit and Naleraq. Siumut—which has held the premiership continuously since the start of the self-rule of Greenland in 1979 bar for a short period between 2009 and 2013—was determined to keep the reins as they narrowly remained the largest party in parliament. As a result, the government coalitions had to include three to five parties in order to reach a realistic majority of 16 MPs in the 31-seat parliament.

As coalitions after the 2018 elections were broad, so were the disagreements between the parties. Notable and coalition-altering issues revolved around the construction of larger airports, fishing rights and a controversial mining project where uranium would be produced as a byproduct. The last straw, however, was the then-incumbent Prime Minister Kim Kielsen of Siumut losing the leadership election of his own party at the end of 2020. Kielsen refused to step down from the premiership, causing a rift within the party and uncertainty for their coalition partners. The confusion, as well as the new Siumut leader’s differing stance on the mining project, prompted Demokraatit to leave the coalition and leave it without a majority, forcing Prime Minister Kielsen to call new elections after a parliamentary vote. The vote itself in the end was nearly unanimous, after hours of parliamentary debate.

And so the citizens of Greenland are heading to elect the members of Inatsisartut, the Greenlandic parliament, on Tuesday. The Greenlandic parliament consists of 31 seats. It is elected with the proportional D’Hondt method from a single electoral region encompassing the whole of Greenland. Voters usually choose the candidate to vote for on the ballot box, yet it is also possible to write a party name if the voter does not have a specific candidate in mind but wants to award the vote to a certain party. The candidate lists are open, meaning that the candidate with the most votes gets into the parliament first.

The election themes revolve around contested mining projects in Southern Greenland, as well as airport projects and education, much like the important questions during last parliamentary term. Ever-present is also the question of internal administrative divisions. The old 19 municipalities of Greenland were consolidated into just four (later five) municipalities in the 2008-09 municipality reform, yet many parties, like the small Nunatta Qitornai, would want to see the reform rolled back completely. Siumut, too, is concerned with municipal boundaries which extend across the vast distances and cultural differences of East and West. Especially salient for them is the municipality of Semersooq, having both the capital city Nuuk and sparse areas of East Greenland within its borders.

Systemic Quirks and the Pandemic

It is customary in Greenland that the candidate receiving the largest amount of votes in the largest party spearheads the coalition negotiations—at least by default, it is seen as a mark of leading role in the elections. Most of the time such practice is of no significant consequence: party leaders regularly rack up most of the votes and hence the end result is the same as if the leaders would be the premiership-designees.

This time around, however, the custom might prove decisive. As the then-incumbent Prime Minister Kim Kielsen unexpectedly lost the Siumut leadership race to Erik Jensen, the situation within the major party has been rather divided and ambiguous. Kielsen refused to step down from the premiership until the bitter end and remains a popular figure in Greenlandic politics—perhaps even more so than the now-leader Jensen.

Should Kielsen go on to win more personal votes than Jensen within the Siumut lists, the party will have just exacerbated the rift and risk a disastrous political fallout. The question of whether Kielsen would be allowed to try to form a government as Prime Minister—even though Jensen is now the head of Siumut—remains a lingering one over the elections. It is also a question that the party hopes it will never have to test.

The test is already ongoing, in a way. Greenland, its area being roughly the size of four Frances with only 60 000 inhabitants, has to grapple with vast distances in whatever they do. Such is the case also in politics; voting by mail is an available and often used alternative, and it has already started.

Unpolled Polity

Opinion polling is not a regular or systematic feature of the politics in Greenland—even during electoral campaigns. Ever since the 2018 parliamentary elections, less than five public polls have been released, meaning the outcome of the elections is much more in question than is the case in most of the western world. One could therefore say that Greenland remains one of the rarer polities in Western Hemisphere not touched by the magnifier and scrutinising of public opinion that is constantly gauging the support of the parties.

Nevertheless, it is possible to deduce rough movements even from these limited data points. The biggest change compared to the 2018 election is the surge of Inuit Ataqatigiit, the party most left of centre in Greenland. The party achieved roughly 26 per cent of the vote in 2018, yet the polls conducted since have shown steady and rapid growth of its support. In the poll conducted in January 2021, the support of the party approached 40 per cent, though later measurement in April showed the surge subsidising. The centrist and unionist Demokraatit have borne most of the corresponding brunt, with their vote share moving down in the opinion polls, from around twenty per cent to around ten per cent, with a slight rebound just prior to the election.

Based on these individual data points it looks improbable that either Nunatta Qitornai or Suleqatigiissitsisut would repeat their 2018 election performance and retain seats in parliament, though possible it always is. Other parties are polling roughly where they were in the last Greenland parliamentary elections. One should not, however, place too much weight on these opinion polls, as there is only a very limited number of them and they have erred before, though Naleraq showing some improvement. The one thing that is clear is that the left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit has a real chance to topple the centre-left Siumut and be the largest party in Greenland. But they should not rest easy: opinion polls showed IA ahead of Siumut both in 2014 and 2018 elections—only for Siumut to end up the largest party in the end.

__________

The upcoming parliamentary elections in Greenland will not change the overall trajectory of Greenland, which is headed firmly towards independence, at a pace or another. What the elections might do is draw a line under the ambiguous and much-conflicted rump parliamentary term of 2018-2021. Especially if the centre-left Siumut manages to settle its internal divisions or Inuit Ataqatigiit forms a majority coalition, the forthcoming term looks like a more stable one. Should Kim Kielsen, however, not go quietly into the night while Siumut tops the polls, Siumut and the whole of Greenland risk facing more of the same in future.

Correction: the article stated earlier that coaliton-altering issues revolved around, among others, an uranium mining project. The article has now been updated to reflect the fact that uranium is not the primary product of the mine, but only a side product.

Leave a Reply