UPDATE 1-Greenlanders vote in election focused on mining, China
* Capital shows effects of change, including cinemas, offices
* Coastal residents fear impact on traditional livelihoods
By Alistair Scrutton
NUUK, March 12 (Reuters) - Voters in Greenland's capital braved heavy snow and crowded into its one polling station on Tuesday in an election which pits economic development against concerns over the environment and Chinese influence.
With sea ice thawing and new shipping routes opening in the Arctic, the former Cold War ally of the West has emerged from isolation and gained geopolitical attention thanks to its untapped mineral wealth and potential offshore oil and gas.
Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist, who in his youth hunted whales with a hand-held harpoon, has opened up Greenland to investors over the last four years. He has been feted by Chinese and EU officials vying for influence.
"The question in this election is whether you believe in a new economy with large scale projects like mining, or whether you want to remain with the old and traditional ways of running this country." Kleist told Reuters after he voted.
The capital Nuuk now has an art cinema, sushi bars, Thai restaurants and gleaming new office towers alongside older, grey Soviet-style housing estates and an old port where hunters bring in seals for skinning.
Many of the 57,000 mostly Inuit inhabitants dotted along remote coastal towns and villages, however, fear change has come too fast.
Revenues from mining may help wean self-governing Greenland off Denmark's roughly $600 million annual grant and lead to eventual independence. But they also bring worries of environmental damage to traditional hunting and fishing.
Ice floes often are so thin that hunters can no longer use dog sledges and miners exploiting Greenland's resources may employ more foreigners than locals.
"This government talks too much about mining and not enough about fishermen," said Job Heilmann, a 48-year-old who hunts for seal and reindeer and fishes for halibut.
He complained about fish quotas, poor market access for seal skins and restrictions over harpoon guns for whale hunting.
"Most fishermen I know are voting for opposition," said Heilmann.
The main opposition leader Aleqa Hammond, who lost her father when she was young after he fell through ice on a hunting trip, has promised more taxes or royalties on foreign mining companies.
"The central issue here is who will run the country?" Hammond told Reuters before she voted. "People feel that it is foreign companies who have too much say here."
JUST TWO TRAFFIC LIGHTS
The capital of 15,000 people overlooks a bay where whales can often be spotted. There are just two traffic lights and no roads or train links with the rest of the country - the only way in or out is by plane or boat.
Campaign posters vie with ice sculptures on the frozen main street by the voting station for attention.
Polls show the results, which may not be known until late Tuesday night, could be close.
European Union officials have expressed concern about China's influence in Greenland, part of what some analysts say is a multi-pronged Arctic strategy by Beijing to secure needed resources.
One of the most controversial plans is a proposal for a $2.3 billion mining project by the British-based London Mining Plc near Nuuk that could supply iron ore to China. Some 2,000 Chinese workers could be flown in for its construction.
Kleist's government passed a law that critics said allowed large companies to bring in cheap labour to work on construction projects. Hammond has promised to revise the law if she wins.
Another issue has been the mining of rare earths, essential in 21st Century technology like smartphones. China currently has the lion's share of production.
Rare earths are often intertwined with uranium deposits. But Greenland is split over whether to jettison its zero tolerance policy on mining radioactive materials, which originates in Denmark. Kleist wants to keep the ban while Hammond would end it.
One rare earth deposit in southern Greenland, being explored by Australian-owned Greenland Minerals and Energy, could be one of the largest such mines outside of China.
"Everything is on hold for us with the election," said Ib Laursen, operations manager at Greenland Minerals and Energy.