The major contenders for one of the highest public offices in the world include the first possible female candidate for the position; a slightly aggressive (and that’s what his friends say about him) surprise candidate; and a socialist who’s not really supposed to be there but has garnered enough support to possibly be a contender. Nothing new here, right?
This is not the United States presidential election. It is the campaign to elect the next secretary-general of the United Nations. Only twice in the UN’s 70-year existence have the United States and the UN elected a new leader at the same time — in 1952 and now. In 1996, Bill Clinton was re-elected president of the US and Kofi Annan appointed to the first term of his secretary-general-ship.
Among the many reasons for this rarity are the term lengths for these positions: four for the president and, normally, five for the secretary-general. The latter’s term is discretionary; Trygve Lie of Norway, for example, served only three years in his second term.
Terms, responsibilities and selection process for the top job at the UN are provided for in the UN Charter, Articles 97-100. A candidate is elected by a vote through the UN General Assembly, upon the recommendation of the UN Security Council.
Typically, the process has been opaque with no transparency for the general public — not even a list of names made available — and with determinative control by the five countries permanently sitting on the Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. Nominees emerged from a rotation based on five regional groupings. Western Europe has sent three secretaries-general to the UN, Asia and Africa were both represented twice and one secretary-general came from the Americas and the Caribbean. Eastern Europe is the only geographical location remaining unrepresented.
Historic changes for both elections have occurred this year, as well as eerie similarities. In June, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be the presumptive nominee of the US Democratic Party. And the unexpected Republican candidate is Donald Trump, a businessman turned politician who has spent months shaking up his party; the Socialist? Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
At the insistence of the UN General Assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft, the UN curtain was lifted in 2016 and, as in the Wizard of Oz, the machinations exposed. Countries were asked to nominate a single candidate each directly to the General Assembly.
The candidates participated in what Lykketoft, a Dane, called the toughest job interview in the world — live broadcasts of “informal dialogues” with the whole General Assembly, which included presenting a personal statement and taking questions (and answering them) from diplomats and civil society. Each dialogue lasted longer than two hours. After the candidates left the General Assembly, they took questions from the press at a media stakeout. Collectively, the candidates answered an estimated 1,100 questions.
The results of all this unprecedented transparency at the UN? To date, a slate of 11 candidates, of whom 5 are women; like the US presidency, there has never been a female secretary-general. Of the five women, three come from Eastern Europe: Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, the first woman to head Unesco; a Moldovan former foreign minister, Natalia Gherman; and a Croatian former foreign minister, Vesna Pusic.
The others are Helen Clark of New Zealand, a front-runner from the UN’s Western European and Others group. Clark, a former prime minister, has been the head of the UN Development Program for the last seven years. A late entry to the process was Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister and a former UN top official. Her informal dialogue occurred earlier in June. (Follow PassBlue’s complete campaign coverage here.)
Scandals, alleged or established, are increasingly being associated with the candidates, a bit like those dogging Hillary Clinton. While none has become a trope on “Saturday Night Live” (“and then, Benghazi!”), they have become fodder for gossip on news sites.
In May, Foreign Policy suggested that Clark, and the UNDP, back-burnered human-rights violations to keep UN personnel working in places run by known human-rights violators. (There’s a thin line between diplomacy and scandal; just ask Clinton.) The main source for the article was a report led by a former UN official and adviser to the UN chief, Robert Petrie. (Side note: the html title for the article reads “Aunty-Helen-of-Turtle-Bay,” a play on President Obama calling Clinton “Aunt Hillary.”)
Bokova, according to Politico EU, ran into a little issue regarding the hiring practices at Unesco and may not be seen as favorable to most of the General Assembly or to the Security Council, especially the British mission to the UN, which has shrugged off Bokova as a serious contender.
Bokova herself previously edged an early but undeclared front-runner, Kristalina Georgieva, for the nomination. (Politics, Bulgarian style.) Georgieva, an economist and top administrator for the European Union, is rumored, as reported by Politico and by European diplomats at the UN, to still be in contention for a nomination. The new process allows for each country to nominate a single candidate, but that candidate does not necessarily have to be a national. If Bokova’s candidacy continues to flag, could Bulgaria be persuaded to switch nominations?
Among the male economists, diplomats and politicians, a group that Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World called “closet sexists,” vying for the Secretariat’s highest job is a lingering socialist, António Guterres of Portugal, who has had a formidable career as a former prime minister; the head of Socialist International, an association of political parties; and, until recently, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
One of the youngest and most controversial male candidates is a somewhat surprise entry, Vuk Jeremic. A contested candidate from Serbia, Jeremic has been the UN General Assembly president and formerly Serbia’s minister of foreign affairs. He’s only 40 years old. Jeremic has been vocal on social media and Huffington Post, positioning himself as the right candidate to shake up the UN and bring it into the 21st century.
Sound familiar? Sadly, Jeremic does not have as strangely entertaining social media presence as Trump, lacking haiku tweets and carefully managed communications on message.
But Jeremic is not without detractors, those who are willing to label him a combative, extremist, nationalistic wolf in Cantabrian clothing. As UN General Assembly president, he openly opposed an independent Kosovo, despite recognition by four-fifths of the Security Council and 101 other countries.
Groups of Balkan expats are actively campaigning against Jeremic’s campaign. As an example, the Congress of North American Bosnians recently wrote to the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, suggesting that Jeremic not be considered for the secretary-general position.
The reason? Jeremic arranged for a song to be played in the General Assembly, the same song, according to the letter, that had been played during the massacre at Srebrenica and other conflicts during the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
To date, Jeremic has not acknowledged that genocide occurred nor disavowed any of the conflict’s atrocities. He may be the only person more intolerant and unpluralistic, or “anti-civilization” as one media outlet put it, than Trump.
The barbarians may be standing at both gates. But, for now, at least, Clinton is poised to keep making history. And, by the end of the year, she could be joined by a female secretary-general. And . . . cue Beyoncé and Tina Fey.
This article was updated on June 21.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.