Why election day in Greenland is anything but ordinary

ANALYSIS: Thanks to the efforts of ordinary people from all walks of life, democracy worked — and will continue to work — in Greenland.

By Martin Breum - May 4, 2018
Siumut candidate, Karl Kristian Kruse, and leader of Siumut Party, Kim Kielsen, are seen outside Godthaabshallen in Nuuk, Greenland April 24, 2018. (Christian Klindt Soelbeck / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

As this is being written, the premier of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, is taking his time negotiating with potential partners over the terms for his next coalition government. Kielsen won the elections in Greenland on April 24, not with any impressive margin, but with sufficient votes for his Siumut party and for parties that he is on speaking terms with that finding a majority among the 31 members of Inatsisartut, Greenland’s parliament, should not be uncomfortably difficult.

UPDATE: Several hours after this piece published, Kielsen’s Siumut party announced an agreement to form a coalition government with three other parties. You can read more here.

I was in Greenland on election day, trotting around in snowy Nuuk where the political parties, their candidates and supporters waited for the electoral results in the community hall, at Daddy’s nightclub, in sports facilities and other locales until far into the small hours of the next morning; some celebrating wins, some accepting losses, and all watching the crucial digits on the TV screen as results poured in from Greenland’s many towns and smaller communities.

Big deal, you think, this sounds just like any other election?

But no, not by a far shot. In one sense you are right, of course, these elections were very, very ordinary, but this is exactly why the whole process was so much out of the ordinary and why suggesting otherwise would be misreading Greenland very badly.

These seemingly ordinary proceedings — votes cast, results counted, negotiations to follow — represent a fundamentally important story of modern Arctic ingenuity, creativity, innovation and social cohesion that we should be careful to take note of.

Everything works

Just as the voting centers closed at 8 p.m. in the evening on April 24, the mayor of Nuuk, Asii Narup Chemnitz, who served as head of the capital’s electoral committee, walked up to me in the sports hall that served as the heart of the elections in Nuuk:

“Sometimes we forget how impressive it is that everything works here,” she said, embracing with a gesture not only Nuuk, but the entire Greenlandic nation. Understandably tired after 12 hours of overseeing the local electoral proceedings she still found time to marvel at the underlying wonder of it all.

We were just two minutes past the last voter in Nuuk and a bunch of her employees were already busy counting votes (under due supervision from appointed controllers), others were dissembling voting booths, cleaning, unscrewing noticeboards and generally readying the hall for more sports in the morning.

Chemnitz reminded me how rigorously controlled voting, organized according to the most detailed rulebooks on proper, western, democratic elections, had taken place not only here in urban Nuuk but also at 71 other locations in the vastness of Greenland, the world’s largest island.

Ballots by dogsled

In the end this became my take-home-lesson from the Greenland elections 2018, delivered to me on election night by the exhausted but happy mayor of Nuuk. Democracy worked — and will continue to work in Greenland. Not only through the strong dedication to its principles by the 56,000 citizens of this unique nation (71.9 percent of 40,769 eligible voters took part), but very much also through the efforts of ordinary people of all walks of life who make up the superbly complex web of logistical solutions in this nation where no two towns are connected by road or rail, where weather patterns are sometimes difficult, where money is often scarce but where human ingenuity and grit somehow continue to rule and flourish.

Following Arctic affairs I often come across terms like “isolation”, “remote”, “wilderness”, “uninhabited”, “traditional”, “icy” and other descriptions. I probably inadvertently use some of these myself; born, raised and still living as I am in very urbanite — and anything but Arctic — conditions in Denmark. But I am trying to understand that we all live in the center of our personal lives and that nowhere is essentially remote — unless you are not there yourself and unable to imagine that you were. Of course, the Arctic sometimes requires different solutions to practical issues than Toronto or Copenhagen and vice versa. But it has long been time to dismantle the more widespread misconceptions of the Arctic as “remote” and replace them with more appropriate imagery.

The electoral process in Greenland worked without a hitch (as least as far as we know) not only in Nuuk, but in villages with less than 50 people hundreds of kilometers away on the island’s East Coast on the other side of the vast ice sheet. Everything worked also in Siorapaluk, the world’s most northern settlement — north even of Thule Air Base — just as it did in tiny Aappilattoq, 2,500 kilometers to the south.

In Savissivik, a town of less than 60 people in the very far north, things almost went bad: As ballots for all voters in Greenland’s northern districts were flown from Nuuk to Ilulissat, the administrative seat of northern Greenland, weather conditions deteriorated. Only through extreme vigilance by those who followed the distribution of ballots electronically did ballots reach Savissivik in time. Firstly, the were re-routed and flown from Ilulissat to Pittufik/Thule Air Base. From here, Air Greenland’s station leader, Peter Lilie, called a hunter in Savissivik, Markus Hansen, who immediately set out on a 150-kilometer journey on his dogsled. Lilie got in his 4X4 and headed towards Camp Tuto, a disbanded military research site at the edge of Thule Air Base. The two met there, ballots for Savissivik got on Hansen’s sled and polling began on time in Savissivik. 31 members of the community cast their vote.

In total, 43,000 ballots were distributed in Greenland by planes, helicopters, ships, speedboats, automobiles, snowmobiles and dogsleds.

Meanwhile, Greenland’s publicly owned telecommunications company, Tele-Post, got ready for the sensitive task of collecting electronically the results from all 72 election centers on a coastline of 2,500 mostly uninhabited kilometers  — a process executed so seamlessly that I never thought of it until much later. Watching TV in Nuuk, we had results popping up from all corners of Greenland, which were then instantly integrated, calculated and presented as rapidly and smoothly on-screen as if we were in Toronto, Stockholm or Washington.

And so it went, quite ordinarily, until at the very end of a long election night we all knew who won and who lost. Around midnight the bizarre happened: Kim Kielsen, who had just had a congratulatory call from the main runner up, Sara Olsvig from Inuit Ataqatigiit, Greenland’s second largest party, made an appearance at Daddy’s, Nuuk’s main nightclub that his party, Siumut, had taken over for the occasion. Everyone expected Kielsen to now make his victory speech, but at this very moment the owner of the club, himself a candidate of Kim Kielsen’s party, announced that the club was closing, since local law prohibited it from remaining open any longer. Kielsen never made any speech.

Not this, but every other important detail of the electoral process was immediately available to all citizens in Greenland on live radio or television.

Voting, counting, reporting — it all worked flawlessly; even a recount of votes cast in Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest city, that was made necessary by a technical fault in the middle of the night.

And right now, as I write this, the Premier of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, is continuing to carefully ponder his next move. As I finished writing, I just checked again and there are still no news. Coffee is poured. Negotiations drag on. It is all so very ordinary. Which is what makes it extraordinary.