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Greenland eyes independence from Denmark after election vote

  • Greenland's long-term goal is to break away from Denmark
  • Independence could relegate Greenland as Europe's poorest nation
  • New coalition government must tackle high suicide rates
Many in Greenland see its future as independent from Denmark
Ritzau Scanpix/Christian Klindt Soelbeck/via REUTERS
Many in Greenland see its future as independent from Denmark

Greenland's 40,000 eligible voters delivered a bittersweet election victory for Prime Minister Kim Kielsen's social-democratic Siumut party Tuesday, as it lost ground to centrist rivals.

With only one international airport and no roads connecting the territory's 17 towns, dog sleds were used to carry ballots to polling stations across the vast island.

According to Greenland's government, some fishermen travelled 93 miles to deliver ballot papers to a remote town.

As Kielsen began coalition talks with left-wing parties Wednesday, Greenland's politicians must tackle more problematic questions about the future of the sparsely populated Arctic nation.

A brittle economy and independence from Denmark were among the most pressing issues for Greenland's 54,000 residents in the election. Greenland has been self-governing with its own parliament since 2009, 30 years after Denmark granted it autonomy.

Despite having abundant natural resources across its 811,000 mile squared land mass, Greenland relies on 3.6 billion Danish kroner ($591 million) of subsidies annually – some 60 percent of its annual budget.

Splitting from Denmark would relegate Greenland to the lowly status as one of the poorest European nations, with its $2.2 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 on a par with San Marino. By comparison, Liechtenstein's $6.6 billion GDP outshines Greenland.

Secessionist movements are looking to grab the moment in other Danish territories. Republicans in the Faroe Islands want a full divorce from Denmark, which controls the island's standing on foreign relations and currency.

The Faroe Island votes Wednesday in a referendum to decide whether to implement a new constitution to pave the way towards independence.

Ana Andrade, Greenland Analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, believes a close relationship between Denmark and Greenland could be fruitful for both regions.

"Independence has always been a recurring theme in politics in Greenland. Nevertheless, the central questions debated are not if independence should be pursued, but rather how fast and under what terms," said Andrade.

"Most political parties share the long-term goal of independence (with a few exceptions), but only the nationalist Partii Naleraq has put a specific year (2021) for independence to be achieved."

Social issues also represent another major hurdle for politicians. Greenland has one of the world's highest suicide rates, especially among the indigenous Inuit population struggling to balance tensions between a traditional way of life and modernity.

According to a study by the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, suicide rates dramatically increased between 1960 and 1980 as rapid infrastructure developments and an influx of Danish workers changed communities.

Suicide rates in Greenland are seven times higher than in the U.S.

Any hope of independence is balanced on tackling its health issues and one of the largest sectors in Greenland's economy – fishing and mining uranium.

Adarde believes that boosting the economy through exploiting its natural resources could provide the platform it needs for independence.

"A new government means that we should see important decisions being agreed in these areas, which could contribute to the economic boost Greenland needs to pave the way for its independence from Denmark," she said.