With 11 candidates left in the race this year for United Nations secretary-general, the Security Council held its second straw poll on Aug. 5, showing a slight shift in levels of support by the council’s 15 members, but placing António Guterres of Portugal at the top again. Yet once more, only one woman, this time Susana Malcorra of Argentina, landed among the first-three winners.
As Mary Wareham, an advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and a New Zealander, tweeted, “How predictable.”
Despite sticking to a rule devised in June by the council to keep straw-poll results confidential to supposedly protect the candidates, the results poured out on Twitter immediately, as if the council ceded the dirty work to others.
The day before the Aug. 5 vote, using an “encourage, discourage and no opinion” ballot format, one candidate, Vesna Pusic of Croatia, dropped out. She landed at the bottom of the original straw poll on July 21.
Guterres of Portugal, a former UN refugee agency chief and an ex-prime minister, hung on to his perch in the Aug. 5 poll, with 11 votes of encouragement, two discouragements and two no opinion. During the first poll, he received 12 positive votes, no negatives and three no opinion, so his support is faltering.
In the latest vote, Guterres was followed by Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia, who moved up the ladder. He received eight positive, four negative and three neutral votes. Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister (and a former UN official), also gained, receiving eight positive, six negative and one neutral. She was followed by Danilo Turk of Slovenia, an ex-president of his country, who came in seven-five-three. All 11 candidates received fewer “encourage” votes this time around.
In the last straw poll, the second- and third-place winners had been Turk and Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who is in charge of Unesco. She dropped to fifth in the Aug. 5 poll.
Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia placed sixth, followed, in order, by Helen Clark of New Zealand; Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica; Igor Luksic of Montenegro; Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia; and Natalia Gherman of Moldova.
Pettiness is creeping into the process, with one candidate being criticized for speaking English “too well,” according to a source. Candidates were also told to declare whether they had more than one citizenship, as if to reveal hidden agendas.
While several ambassadors who sit on the Security Council came out of the meeting on Friday morning smiling (unlike the previous vote, when many ambassadors nearly scowled), they remained diplomatic.
“It went relaxed and well,” said the Angolan ambassador, Ismael Abraão Gaspar Martins.
“My lips are sealed,” Uruguay’s ambassador, Elbio Rosselli, announced to a group of journalists gathered outside the council chambers.
“The second round of straw polls has taken place: all the 11 candidates will be informed of the results through their respective permanent representatives of nominating states,” said Ramlan Bin Ibrahim, the ambassador of Malaysia and council president for August.
“The mood was good,” he added, looking, like other ambassadors, eager to enjoy the summer weekend.
Mogens Lykketoft, the current president of the General Assembly, who with civil society groups has transformed the selection process to an unprecedented degree of openness, kept his comments about the continued withholding of the voting results to a Nordic minimalism.
“The lack of transparency is undignified for the UN and for the candidates,” Lykketoft, a Dane, said.
In July, defending the closed process, Japan’s ambassador, Koro Bessho, president of the council that month, said it needed to “implement the rules as it stood.”
“I do not welcome leaks,” he noted, adding, “we have not been deaf to the comments” made by different parties about the lack of transparency.
Bessho further justified the purpose of the straw polls, saying that “it’s not a voting on who is the best person,” but a means to show “the sense of the council to the candidates so they would know where they stand in the race and for the council members to understand how the process is leading, in what direction the process is leading.”
Several diplomats on the council, through background-only discussions, have encouraged reporters and others to keep the topic of more openness active, concerned how dated the UN appears in the era of instant global messaging.
Ramlan Bin Ibrahim, the Malaysian ambassador, addressed the issue, too, saying, “What I can say is we are listening to many of the views expressed by the wider membership, and of course by the media as well.”
He reiterated the general agreement among council members that “each and every one of us must follow the rules and procedures” of confidentiality put in place.
“Of course, we are not deaf to many whispers and murmurs as to how we should conduct ourselves,” he conceded.
The time it will take to select the next leader of the UN, for the 2017-2022 term, is also at stake. Noting that it would make the transition for the next secretary-general much easier the sooner the election finishes — which must happen by Dec. 31, when the current leader, Ban Ki-moon, leaves office — a spokesman for the United States mission to the UN said after the straw poll, “We hope we can come to a conclusion as quickly as possible.”
That appears to be wishful thinking, as rumors abound as to how the selection could become protracted if no candidate can be agreed on by, say, October, when Russia is president of the Security Council. The chance that a new candidate, such as Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union finance chief and a Bulgarian, could be recruited has resurfaced. Her name popped up throughout this year, despite Bulgaria’s endorsement of Bokova.
Georgieva could be supported by Western European members and allies on the council but could have trouble winning over Russia as a candidate.
An Eastern European diplomat who has been closely observing the straw polls described the first one as a situation of “vetoes over vetoes, to negotiate as much as possible,” referring to the power that the permanent council members possess.
Russia, with its veto and tenuous relationship with the West, will play a large role, as will the US, another permanent member. “Now the question is who Russia will accept, rather than support,” the diplomat said.
This article was updated.
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.