The first straw poll to test the support of Security Council members for candidates vying to become the next United Nations secretary-general occurred Thursday morning. The vote took place amid strong interest by global media who report on the world body as well as the dozen candidates, the UN’s 193 member states and people who follow international affairs.
Beyond this coterie of foreign affairs aficionados, New Yorkers couldn’t care less about the election.
As one lawyer who lives in Brooklyn said, shrugging and laughing, “I didn’t know this was happening.”
Gleaning results kept the UN beehive busy the day of the straw poll, July 21. Results trickled in by word of mouth instead of officially: António Guterres, a Portuguese who until recently was head of the UN refugee agency; Danilo Turk, who has been president of Slovenia and a former assistant secretary-general for political affairs; and Irina Bokova, who runs Unesco, were reported to be the top favorites: all UN veterans and Western-leaning people in the post-Brexit era.
Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian former foreign minister and past president of the UN General Assembly, and Srgjan Kerim, who has been a foreign minister for Macedonia, also tied for third, AP reported.
The first informal results could sorely disappoint efforts by women’s groups internationally who are hoping a woman gets the job, changing course for the UN’s 71-year history of male leadership. The secretary-general holds a renewable five-year term, and Ban Ki-moon, the current one, finishes a 10-year term on Dec. 31, 2016.
The first straw poll, conducted in papal secrecy by the 15 elected and permanent members of the Security Council (14 members are men), is intended to winnow the 12 candidates for the UN chief. It was done through confidential ballots marked “encourage,” “discourage” and “no opinion.”
The votes of the council’s permanent five members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — were closely watched. Agence France-Presse, which is subsidized indirectly by the French government, was one of the first major media to report on the results.
“We are not going to preview our position on the individual candidates, needless to say, but we made no secret of the fact that we’re looking for somebody with great leadership skills, great management skills, someone who has a commitment to fairness and accountability and who stays true to the founding principles of the United Nations,” said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, before she went into the council chamber to participate in the straw poll.
A total of 180 ballots were tallied by Japan, as rotating president of the council in July. The ballots did not show the names of the countries voting and the ballots were supposed to be destroyed after the results were counted, yet this information could not be confirmed. As the UN video above shows, Japan’s ambassador to the UN, Koro Bessho, revealed virtually nothing about the vote except to say it had taken place.
For some Latin American delegates, waiting outside the council chambers to hear news on the results, the lack of transparency was insulting. “How do we even know the straw poll took place?” one delegate asked.
Nearby, media jostled for news from ambassadors, thrusting cellphones at them to record and elicit quotable tidbits, with France, Venezuela, Britain and the US happy to deliver bland sound bites on what kind of candidates they wanted.
The last time the council held a straw poll was 10 years ago, when it picked Ban, a Korean, as secretary-general. The format has not changed.
The British mission to the UN, which meets regularly with media who report on the UN, has been the most informative among all council members about the selection process.
Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, who has repeatedly said that the next secretary-general should be a woman, suddenly switched gears, saying before he went into vote that it was time for a woman, but that he wouldn’t veto a man. (Rycroft has a new boss, Boris Johnson, the foreign minister.)
Despite the General Assembly’s president, Mogens Lykketoft, spending most of his yearlong term prying open the highly secretive process of selecting a secretary-general, the Security Council is keeping the straw poll results quiet, regardless of obvious leaks by diplomats. Lykketoft had publicly iterated to UN member states his desire to be told the results.
It didn’t happen.
“In my view, limiting the communication to the fact that the informal straw poll has taken place without any further detail adds little value and does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency,” Lykketoft said in a letter posted right after the straw poll was held.
The countries representing the 12 candidates — six men and six women — were apparently notified of the results immediately, before ambassadors left the council chamber, but the media and many national delegations were left seeking clues like bloodhounds.
The contingent of delegates from Latin America, which has two candidates running from the region, Susana Malcorra of Argentina and Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, found the refusal of the council to state the results a defiance of a large movement by non-Western members to turn the election into a transparent procedure. Malcorra and Figueres placed below the top-six candidates.
“I would have liked to have more member states here pressuring the council to be more transparent,” said one of the Latin American delegates, speaking on background only — belying her own call for openness.
And Russia, which is keeping its grip on Eastern Europe’s turn to choose the next leader of the UN, has demanded that candidates travel to Moscow to meet with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister.
Russia also reportedly asked all candidates, a day before the straw poll, to declare if they had dual nationalities. The Latin American candidates and an Eastern European candidate may have more than one nationality.
The council is expected to do more straw polls with a final vote intended for October, when Russia holds the council presidency. Even that deadline is uncertain, as council members are unwilling to name a date should a more attractive candidate comes along.
When a candidate is chosen by the council, his or her name will be “recommended” to the General Assembly, whose 193 members cast the ultimate vote. A group of academics and UN experts who make up the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary-General had sent a letter with dozens of prominent signatures to the council the night before the straw poll to encourage members to support a feminist candidate.
Disrupting past traditions, the council’s bow to more openness entailed holding informal “dialogues” with each of the 12 candidates in June and July.
The interviews were held among all council members at off-site locations, and candidates were told not to utter a word to media about the contents. At meetings held at the Japanese mission to the UN, “a fine selection of teas and coffee” was served, a British delegate noted on Twitter.
Some candidates dared to leak details, however, including that most questions posed by council members repeated themes voiced in public hearings with candidates in the General Assembly earlier this year. So, candidates were tested again on such perennial matters as UN management and reform, terrorism, peacekeeping, gender equality, human rights and the new global development goals.
One council member ventured to ask candidates to name which UN agency they thought did the best work. But most members fixated on the more burning question of how to make the UN “relevant again,” according to one candidate. That question reflected, this person said, the council’s growing, if belated, awareness that it has been unable to stop wars throughout the UN’s history and peace remains a mirage.
And now it appears that the council may be unable to elect a female to the secretary-general post — never mind that half the world is female.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.