Greenlanders head to the polls

The future is in the hands of voters in perhaps the most important election in the island nation’s history

Voters in Greenland head to the polls today in a national parliamentary election that brings mining, Chinese investment, Danish and other European influence and the country's fragile environment into sharp focus.

As climate change thaws the sea ice around the country and creates new Arctic shipping routes, Greenland has emerged from trivia question status to a place of interest to governments worldwide lusting for its untapped mineral potential and offshore oil and gas.

Premier Kuupik Kleist has been in power for four years and has opened up Greenland to investors, promising that development would create improved infrastructure, jobs and, most of all, wean the territory off its 3.5 billion kroner annual grant from Copenhagen.

Many of Greenland’s 57,000 inhabitants fear change may be coming too fast. While the capital city of Nuuk may be growing more cosmopolitan every day with restaurants and office buildings being built apace, many residents still live in remote villages with roads that see more dog sledges than cars.

"The people that I know seemed to be evenly divided about development," said Maalia Lynge Christiansen, a student in Aalborg originally from Nuuk. "Now that it seems pretty clear that some kind of development is going to happen, the debate has shifted to what will be the best way to do it." Christiansen said that younger Greenlanders like the coffee bars and new restaurants springing up in Nuuk while older residents are more suspicious of the changes.

Development carries with it worries of environmental damage to Greenland’s long traditions of hunting and fishing.

Today’s vote is being viewed as a race between Kleist and an opposition more linked to traditional Greenlanders like the fishermen and hunters who feel he has gone too far in welcoming foreign companies.

"The main issue is that people feel that they are not part of the decision-making process of big scale projects and mining," opposition leader Aleqa Hammond told the Greenlandic newspaper Sermitsiaq last week.

Hammond called for more taxes and royalties on foreign firms and greater environmental safeguards.

"Where is the voice of the people?" she asked. "People feel that the prime minister speaks on behalf of outside investors."

The election can also be viewed as a referendum on Greenland's desire to completely free itself from Danish rule. Even after being granted increased autonomy in 2009, the island's government still must defer to Denmark on decisions about foreign policy, defence and security.

Greenland is also far from financially self-sufficient and the annual block grant accounts for more than half of national income. The more revenues Greenland earns from mining or oil, the more control it has over its economic future.

Kleist has in the past called on Denmark to step up its interest in his country's mineral riches.

“The alliance between Denmark and Greenland has been incredibly beneficial for both," Kleist wrote. "Isn't it about time that we, after 300 years of history […] openly declare the love and mutual esteem we have for one another?"

In response, PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) said the proposal sounded like a good idea.

“If the Self-Rule administration wants to strengthen the co-operation between Denmark and Greenland in the mining industry the government is naturally open to discuss it,” Thorning-Schmidt told Politiken newspaper.

Kleist’s appeal to Denmark and Greenland’s shared heritage arrived last year after China promised 12 billion kroner of investment for a future iron mine in Greenland.  

The proposed mining project by British-based London Mining near Nuuk would supply iron ore to China. Over 2,000 Chinese workers could be flown in for its construction, a process that some in Greenland say amounts to social dumping and calls into question Kleist’s claims that large projects will create opportunities for Greenlandic workers desperate for jobs.

Kleist's government passed a law in December that some said allowed large companies to bring in cheap labor to work on construction projects. Hammond has promised to revise the law if she wins.

Chinese President Hu Jintao paid a three-day visit to Denmark last year that many observers said was chiefly about Greenland.

Danish and European Union officials have expressed concern about China's growing influence in Greenland.

Another issue facing voters is the mining of rare earth minerals vital to modern technology like smart phones, hybrid cars and wind turbines. China currently leads the world in production of the minerals.

Rare earths are often found cheek and jowl with uranium deposits in Greenland, and the country is divided over whether to change its current zero-tolerance policy on mining radioactive materials.

One rare earth deposit in southern Greenland, being explored by Australian-owned Greenland Minerals and Energy, could be one of the largest such mines outside of China.

US aluminium giant Alcoa is considering  building a smelter in Maniitsoq, a village four hours north of Nuuk whose working population has been crippled by the disappearance of the fisheries industry in the region. Local unemployment is high, but Alcoa has hinted that during the construction phase it also would import of thousands of workers, also possibly from China.

No mining or oil projects have actually been started, but over 100 exploration licenses have been awarded.

Polls show the race to be a dead heat and the results may not be known until late tonight or early on Wednesday.