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Greenland eyes self-rule as it goes to the polls

Copenhagen — Greenlanders voted Tuesday in the Danish semi-autonomous territory to elect members of the local parliament, with surveys predicting a major win for a pro-independence party.

Public opinion polls have suggested the pro-independence opposition party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) could oust the social democratic Siumut party from power after 30 years in government.

Some 39,000 people are registered to vote in the snap elections, called six months ahead of schedule as Greenland prepares for a new self-rule status that takes effect on June 21.

The new status paves the way for independence and gives the island rights to lucrative Arctic resources, as well as control over justice and police affairs and, to a certain extent, foreign affairs.

The IA party, which served in a coalition government with Siumut until 2007, was seen winning 44 percent of votes, almost double its score of 23 percent in the 2005 elections, according to a recent poll.

That score would dethrone Siumut as the biggest party.

According to political observers, voters are expected to punish Siumut for its perceived abuses of power after a slew of scandals.

That issue and improving living conditions on the island have dominated the election campaign.

Greenland is rife with social problems, such as alcoholism, and one in three children is a victim of domestic violence and poor living conditions.

Hospital waiting lists are lengthy, the gap is widening between the rich and the poor, and corruption scandals have made headlines of late.

Following Siumut’s scandals, IA leader Kuupik Kleist has already ruled out a coalition with the party.

The head of the outgoing government, Siumut leader Hans Enoksen, told Greenland radio KNR on Tuesday that he was "surprised" by IA’s refusal.

"Kuupik Kleist had presented himself during the campaign as a leader who wanted to unify the country and was willing to cooperate with all the parties," said Enoksen. "My party is in any case ready for a broad cooperation with the other parties in parliament.”

In third place among voters’ concerns is Greenland’s future independence.

While 75.5 percent of Greenlanders voted in favour of greater autonomy in a November 2008 referendum, some opponents have questioned whether the island of just 57,000 people is really ready to become independent.

Greenland receives annual subsidies from Denmark — about 3.4 billion kroner (456 million euros, 645 million dollars) in 2009 — representing almost half of its budget.

With its 2.1 million square kilometre (840,000 square mile) surface, 80 percent of which is covered by ice, Greenland is the world’s largest island and contains 10 percent of the world’s fresh water reserves.

Independence has grown especially important due to the potentially lucrative revenues from natural resources under Greenland’s seabed and icecap, which according to international experts is home to large oil and gas deposits as well as diamonds, gold and other minerals.

Melting ice in the Arctic owing to climate change could make the region more accessible to exploration in the future.

The countries ringing the Arctic Ocean — Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States — are currently competing over territorial claims in the region and Greenland is keen to garner its share.

The US Geological Survey estimated in 2007 that there may be as many as 31.4 billion barrels of oil in the northeastern part of Greenland.

Major oil companies, such as US groups Chevron and Exxon Mobil and Canadian companies EnCana and Husky, are already prospecting on the island, keen to find a new wealth of resources despite the difficult and costly efforts required because of the harsh climate.

Polling stations were to close at 8:00 pm (2200 GMT), and preliminary results were expected around midnight (0200 GMT Wednesday).

Slim Allagui/AFP/Expatica