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REGIONAL JOURNALISM, GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE.

Politics
Greenland election

The woman with the plan

Sara Olsvig could become Greenland’s next leader. If she does, it will be because she has chosen to focus her campaign on current problems, and not tomorrow’s dreams
Politics
(Photo: Leiff Josefsen)

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This is the second of two articles profiling Greenland’s two leading candidates to become premier after the November 28 general election. In the first we inteviewed Siumut leader Kim Kielsen.

Let’s begin with a spoiler. This interview does not explore the future of Greenland’s relationship with Denmark.

That an interview with one of the two leading candidates to become Greenland’s next leader does not touch on what has been the most divisive political topic of the past year and a half may come as something of a surprise. But, ever since a snap general election was called on October 1, discussion of the issue has fallen silent.

And that, according Sara Olsvig, is a good sign.

“There are so many other big topics right now,” says Olsvig, the 36-year-old leader of the left-leaning IA, which is likely to be the biggest vote-getter in the November 28 election.

SEE RELATED: May the best coalition win

Independence was a big pre-occupation for the previous government, which collapsed on October 1 in the wake of as-yet-resolved allegations of mis-use of public funds. But, according to a recent poll, taken for KNR, a public broadcaster, independence wasn’t even among voters’ top-10 during this election. Instead, the dominant theme has been the economy; in the KNR poll, one in three named an economic issue as their main concern.

“That just shows people are being realistic,” Olsvig says. “They want us to focus on the issues that affect their lives, and we’d rather talk about our plan for fixing the economy.”

Regardless of who you speak with – lawmakers, economic advisors or even voters themselves – there is widespread understanding that fixing the economy means implementing reforms that can prevent the country from falling into the economic trap of declining revenue and increasing expenditure, due in part to an ageing population.

At one time, it was hoped that underground resources – oil, gold, rare earths and more – would keep that gap shut. But there are currently no active mines in Greenland, and the oil industry, which had already been dormant since 2011, finally pulled up stakes this year.

SEE RELATED: Reform, reform, reform

They have promised to come back, just as mining firms all agree there is treasure to be found in the country’s underground. But tough financing and a fall in commodities prices have put the brakes on most operations. Meanwhile, established industries like travel and fishing have fallen on tough times.

“Righting the situation will be no easy task,” Olsvig says. “Reforms are going to be hard for everyone, but all the parties agree that they need to be realistic. Oil and minerals aren’t going to save the economy.”

In January, a report published by the universities of Copenhagen and Greenland hammered that point home. Even if the mining industry begins to live up to its most optimistic expectations, the income, the reportconcluded, would be inadequate to allow the country’s economy to become self-sustaining. When the minerals were dug up and sold, Greenland would be right back where it started.

When the report came out, Olsvig, then a rank and file member of IA holding seats in both the Greenlandic and Danish legislatures, welcomed it, saying it validated – yet again, she underscored – the party’s position that a diversified economy was necessary to sustain economic growth.

SEE RELATED: Worth their weight in gold, oil and uranium?

Greenland, according to IA, can create a healthy economy by improving tourism opportunities (with the aim of doubling turnover) and by making it easier to set up and run small businesses (to inspire entrepreneurialism). But the dominant source of income will continue to be fishing.

“Fishing is extremely important for us,” Olsvig says. With fish – primarily prawn and halibut – accounting for 90% of exports, such a statement borders on the painfully obvious. But the issue has become so important thatOlsvig and her party are willing to rock the boat – so to speak – in order to make sure that the country is making the most out of its fisheries.

“We want to make sure that people are employed year round,” Olsvig says. “But that’s a big job for a new government and if we’re going to make it work we’re going to have to get everyone involved – fishermen’s groups, business groups, NGOs, political parties.”

For years, commercial fishing in Greenland provided two kinds of jobs: on the boats, catching the fish, and onshore, processing the catch and sending it off to market. In recent years, both types of jobs have dried up. The introduction of larger ships means smaller crews are necessary. The establishment of production facilities abroad, where wages are lower and markets closer, means most processing jobs are gone too.

SEE RELATED: The election will be globalised

The exports still contribute to Greenland’s bottom line, but candidates from across the political spectrum agree that there is more money to be made from the fish it is catching.

In order to make that happen, IA has proposed a fishing policy that maintains the policy of boats to land their catch in Greenland, instead of sending it abroad unprocessed. The party would also set regulations for hiring Greenlandic crews. Another change would adjust the quota system so that small fishermen get individual quota, so they don't fish up their quota in just a matter of a few weeks, leaving processing plants dormant for long periods of time.

Fishing may be Greenland’s big economic engine, but prior to the election, the other big issue, after independence, that seemed to be stealing the limelight was uranium. Another recent poll, this one carried out forSermitsiaq, Greenland’s largest newspaper and which is co-owned by this website’s parent company, found just 3.1% of the electorate felt it was the most important issue.

It remains a sensitive topic, however, particularly in southern Greenland, where a plans to open a rare-earths mine that will also dig up uranium have turned into a fight over jobs, local development, the environment andeven farming.

SEE RELATED: Foreign relations in the kingdom of Denmark

Olsvig says she’s glad uranium hasn’t been a key issue, since it has the potential to overshadow some of the more fundamental issues. Nevertheless, she hopes Inatsisartut, the national legislature, will reconsider last year’s decision to repeal the ban on mining.

Critics, not least those with ties to the mining industry, have warned that reinstating the ban will undermine Greenland’s credibility as a place to do business. Their argument goes that if mining companies fear governments will get into the habit of changing policy to suit their ideology, they will think twice about investing.

Olsvig agrees that businesses need to know what to expect, but points out that re-opening the discussion is the only way to come up with a long-term solution.

“Our party line is that we are against uranium mining, but we need to ask the public. We want a national referendum on uranium. Then the new parliament has to come up a stable policy. In reality, it’s the current policy that’s unstable because of the way it was passed.”

SEE RELATED: An elemental debate

Dissatisfaction with the way the measure was passed – beyond the single-vote margin it passed Inatsisartut last year – includes what opponents say was a lack of input from voters. To make sure they get heard, Olsvig proposes holding independently organised public meetings and, eventually, a referendum.

IA says the referendum should be non-binding. That hasn’t sat well with critics, who worry that the party will cast aside an outcome it doesn’t like. Olsvig, however, argues that the issue is too important to boil it down to a simple vote for or against.

“It’s not a black and white issue. The public and political parties, we’re all split about it and we need to find something we can agree on. I’m not sure we can’t reach that point, but getting there requires us having a discussion, and the referendum is a part of that.”

Just like independence and uranium have been something of non-issues for most of the current election, foreign policy is another one of those issues that Nuuk has invested time and effort into in recent years, yet has received little attention during the campaign.

Earlier this year, Nuuk established the latest of its three diplomatic offices when it sent its first official envoy to Washington. (The other two are in Brussels and Copenhagen.) Although its representative in Washington works out of the Danish embassy, he pursues commercial, trade and cultural relations independent of Copenhagen.

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For those familiar with Greenland, the division between Danish and Greenlandic interests are obvious. But Olsvig admits that the set up might not always be clear to the uninitiated. Nuuk, she underscores, is allowed to pursue a foreign policy, provided it isn’t defence orother state-to-state relations.

Setting up a foreign ministry (foreign affairs has previously been a part of the premier’s portfolio) would be one way for Nuuk to promote its foreign-policy role. Sending out more diplomats is another. But both take resources and, right now, the country is strapped for cash.

“It’s not the first thing we’re going to do, but we want to be proactive and promote our exports and other interests abroad.”

Nuuk has not always seen eye-to-eye with Copenhagen when it comes to foreign policy, particularly on issues like uranium exports (Copenhagen argues it has the right to decide) or whaling (Greenland is pro, Denmark is not), but by and large, Olsvig says, she’s pleased with the effort Copenhagen puts in on their behalf.

“We co-operate well with Denmark, and that’s something we take seriously.”

Seriously enough that it is not worth making an issue of.