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Two-part disharmony

Analysis | Greenland’s local election is shaping up to be a fight over the leadership of its leading political party
It either tolls for you or for me (Photo: Leiff Josefsen)

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That Lars-Emil Johansen, the president of Inatsisartut, Greenland’s national assembly, should have a rivalry with Kim Kielsen, the premier and chair of Siumut, the country’s leading political party, ought to be of little surprise: Mr Johansen, himself a former premier and chair of Siumut, lost to Mr Kielsen in a 2014 bid to regain control of the party.

Mr Kielsen eventually went on to become premier.

What comes as more of a surprise is that Mr Johansen has criticised his party leader in public. Mr Kielsen reportedly has long been frustrated that Mr Johansen (pictured above, with accordian) apparently opposes his leadership. Until last week, those disputes, however, were mostly kept behind closed doors.

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Now, after openly criticising Mr Kielsen in this week’s edition of Sermitsiaq, a newspaper published by this website’s parent company, for what he sees as weak leadership, many are left asking is what Mr Johansen hopes to gain by publicly airing his dissatisfaction.

Critics of Mr Johansen also suggest that as chairman of the legislature, he ought keep himself out of party politics, particularly within the ranks of Siumut.

The timing of the criticism is particularly unfortunate for Siumut, given the need for the party to stand together ahead of local elections being held on April 8.

At the national level, having to fend of Mr Johansen’s criticism and his supporters has prevented Mr Kielsen from promoting his own political agenda.

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Mr Johansen bases his criticism on four main points: Mr Kielsen has given key cabinet positions to members of the governing coalition’s other parties, opposing local governments’ development plans, letting unelected officials assume too much power and for not developing the country’s mining sector quickly enough.

Mr Johansen is not alone in his criticism that the government is doing too little to move the country forward. Such dissatisfaction has led local authorities to begin planning their own development projects, several of which have become key election issues.

Such criticisms are perhaps not out of place: Mr Kielsen, for example, went against members of his own party on the Nuuk local council by speaking out against a plan to build a 1,200-unit housing development in the city. The plan was put forward by the city's mayor, who represents a rival party, but has widespread support on the council.

Mr Kielsen’s supporters have sought to help him out of the situation by arguing that the party is diverse enough to sustain multiple points of view.

SEE RELATED: Greenland independence “a task for the next generation”

Even those who have not come out against Mr Kielsen have gripes they could air: Jørgen Wæver, the mayor of Kujalleq Council, in the southern part of the country, for example, has built a road linking its main settlement to the site of a future airport, yet no final decision about whether it will actually be built has been made, despite it being talked about for years. Landing an airport had otherwise been on the cards as one of the major accomplishments Siumut would be able to point to during campaigning for the April 8 election.

When two political titans from the same party clash, the biggest loser is likely to be the party they represent. One way will be harmed is the the damage it does internally. Another is that it will permit rivals to make gains more as its members bicker.

For Mr Johansen the conflict could end up being the beginning of his political end after the better part of four decades in politics: in August, Siumut holds its annual congress and many expect him to seek to use it as an opportunity topple Mr Kielsen and replace him with a hand-picked candidate. One name being put forward has been Martha Lund Olsen, a veteran lawmaker who was forced out of Mr Kielsen’s cabinet earlier this year when she announced she would be seeking election to the local council in Nuuk.

Mr Kielsen, though, will not give up the chairmanship without a fight, and, if he goes down, Mr Johansen can expect to be pulled down with him. The premier, of course, has one option Mr Johansen does not: he can call early election and may well do so – if he feels it will strengthen his hand. 

This article was originally published in Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic newspaper that is owned by this website’s parent company.