COPENHAGEN: Greenland’s tiny electorate went to the polls Tuesday with independence the key issue for the vast self-ruled Danish territory now threatened by global warming and struggling with youth suicides and sex abuse among its indigenous people.
Rich in natural resources, Greenland gained autonomy from Denmark in 1979 and was granted self-rule in 2009, although Copenhagen retains control of foreign and defense affairs.
The giant ice-covered island between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans is home to just 55,000 people.
Denmark provides some 3.6 billion kroner (€483 million) in subsidies each year, equivalent to 60 percent of the budget and which would be cut if Greenland opted for full independence.
So the main issue is when and how to break the Danish link without impoverishing the island.
A gross domestic product of $2.2 billion, according to figures for 2015, puts Greenland in the same economic league as San Marino.
Of the seven political parties, six favor independence. Some are keen to declare independence by 2021 to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Denmark’s occupation though most have not set a timeline.
Opinion polls suggest the left-green Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party will win Tuesday’s election, where 31 seats in the local parliament are up for grabs.
A poll published Friday gave IA with 31 percent of votes, ahead of its main rival, the social democratic Siumut party which has dominated Greenland politics since 1979 and is currently in power.
Seen garnering 27.4 percent of votes, Siumut could find itself relegated to the opposition — though one in four voters is still undecided.
The two parties are at odds over the use of the island’s lucrative natural resources and the thorny issue of uranium mining, which IA, with strong support among urban youth, opposes.
Meanwhile, polls show the newly-formed Cooperation Party, the only anti-independence party, with around 2.9 percent of votes.
Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, a lawmaker for IA, told AFP that before setting a timeline for independence, the island should first lay the financial groundwork.
“Foreign investments are going to be crucial when you talk about the development of Greenlandic society,” she said.
Her party wants to see a diversification of investments, as rising temperatures in the Arctic melt Greenland’s ice sheet, exposing mineral riches — and drawing eager glances from the West, Russia and China.
“Economic development the last (few) years has been rather good; the fishing industry has been doing quite well … Employment has been increasing and unemployment is low,” said Torben Andersen, Aarhus University economics professor and chairman of the Greenland Economic Council.
Fishing, which accounts for 90 percent of Greenland’s exports, is benefiting from climate change as rising temperatures bring new species to fish to its waters but that is likely to change over time.
While Greenland may have a wealth of untapped natural resources that could help finance its independence, “it suffers from a lack of infrastructure and a qualified labor shortage,” said Mikaa Mered, an Arctic expert and economics and geopolitics professor at France’s School of International Relations.
Heidi Moller Isaksen, a 51-year-old secretary who lives in the capital Nuuk, said breaking free from Denmark is a long-term goal.
“I do want independence one day but we’ve got to be realistic and take one step at a time,” she told AFP.
“We can never have independence as long as we have so many social problems.”
The Inuit like other indigenous populations are torn between tradition and modernization.
That tension has led to Greenland having one of the world’s highest suicide rates, and a third of children are victims of sexual abuse.
In addition, global warming has sparked an exodus from isolated villages to the few urban areas, said Mered.
It is “wreaking havoc on Greenland’s culture: young people are losing interest in traditional hunting and fishing, it’s difficult to travel by dogsled from one village to another, and wild animals are moving further and further away from the regular hunting grounds,” he said.
All of this leads to “numerous new problems, such as youth suicides.”
Voter turnout is typically high in Greenland at around 70 percent. The polls close at 2200 GMT.