COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Greenland voters overwhelmingly approved a plan to seek more autonomy from Denmark and take advantage of oil reserves that may lie off the glacial island, official results showed Wednesday.
The Arctic island's election commission said 76 percent of voters supported the referendum, which sets new rules on splitting future oil revenue with Denmark. The vote was seen as a key step toward independence for the semiautonomous territory, which relies on Danish subsidies.
The referendum supported by Denmark calls for the small, mostly Inuit population to take control over the local police force, courts and coast guard and to make Greenlandic, an Inuit tongue, the official language.
Voters turned up at voting stations in 18 municipalities across the island, from the capital, Nuuk, just below the Arctic Circle to the remote northern outpost of Siorapaluk, where 24-hour darkness reigns during wintertime. About 72 percent of Greenland's nearly 40,000 voters turned out despite subfreezing temperatures in many places.
The plan is now expected to be approved by the Danish and Greenlandic parliaments and go into effect on June 21, the giant island's national day.
"The tears are running down my cheeks," said Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen, who put his fists up in the air in a sign of victory as it became clear the referendum would win. "We have said 'yes' to the right of self-determination, and with this we have accepted a great responsibility."
Drilling for oil and gas in the deep ocean off Greenland's west coast resumed in 2001, three decades after a previous effort failed to find petroleum. Exploration so far has been unsuccessful, but other countries in the northern region are staking their claims to natural resources exposed by the melting of the Arctic ice cap.
The plan is meant to allow the eventual phasing-out of an annual Danish subsidy of about $588 million, which accounts for two-thirds of the island's economy. It would give Greenland the first $12.6 million of annual oil revenue. Any income beyond that would be shared equally between Greenland and Denmark.
The current agreement states that the first $84 million of oil revenue should be shared equally, and that the division of any amount beyond that must be negotiated.
"The Greenland people have yesterday given a clear 'yes' to self-determination within the [Danish] realm," Fogh Rasmussen said.
Greenland became a Danish colony in 1775 and remained so until 1953, when Denmark revised its constitution and made the island a province. Under the 1979 Home Rule Act, Greenland got its own parliament and government, and self-determination in health care, schools and social services.
Foreign and military affairs are controlled by Copenhagen and Denmark's Queen Margrethe is the head of state.
All of Greenland's main political groups supported more autonomy except the small opposition Democrats, who questioned whether the island can afford to take over the more than 30 new areas of responsibility outlined in the referendum.