UN’s Newest Vote to Pick the Next Secretary-General? Guterres Wins Again

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, whispering to Egypt's for AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, whispering to Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, at a UN Security Council meeting on Sept. 21, 2016, on Syria. The next UN secretary-general will inherit the gruesome war in that country. AMANDA VOISARD/UN PHOTO

António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who most recently was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, once more dominated the latest straw poll held by the UN Security Council on selecting the next secretary-general. The five-year term starts Jan. 1, 2017, when Ban Ki-moon, a Korean, leaves office.

The fifth poll, an informal ballot in which the council’s 15 elected and permanent members cast their preferences, unnamed, to “encourage,” “discourage” and to express “no opinion,” was done on Sept. 26, soon after the annual gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly opening debate. The poll results reveal few major shifts in popularity from previous votes, and the “no opinion” category stayed steady, suggesting that council members have become more resolute in their choices.

Altogether, nine candidates were voted on: after Guterres, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia returned to No. 2 and Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia fell to No. 3. Susana Malcorra of Argentina is now the top woman, in fourth place, having slipped up and down the ladder since the first straw poll was conducted in July. She tied with Danilo Turk of Slovenia this time.

Thereafter, the results are, in order of preference: Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Helen Clark of New Zealand and Srgjan Kerim of Macdeonia in a tie, followed by Natalia Gherman of Moldova.

Three candidates dropped out over the summer: Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, Igor Luksic of Montenegro and Vesna Pusic of Croatia.

Gherman and Clark are determined to stay in the race, given the topsy-turvy nature of UN geopolitics, especially as the next poll, on Oct. 5, will take a slightly different approach, using anonymous color-coded ballots.

Clark, who has spent most of her adult life in politics, will wait out the selection process and any unpredictability as voting continues. Gherman vows that as a woman she must stick to the campaign as well.

Much lobbying took place during the gathering of the world’s leaders at the General Assembly last week. Jeremic, the Serbian who has done surprisingly well in the straw polls, was seen huddling with the Ukrainian foreign minister outside the Security Council chambers one day. Ukraine is an elected member of the council and located in Eastern Europe, which through regional rotation claims the right to the secretary-general position. Yet that prerogative has not stopped other candidates from being nominated by their countries, like Malcorra of Argentina.

Eastern Europe is a disparate area politically, with countries generally favoring European alliances or Russian friendship. And Russia, as the mother of the region, has been reportedly insisting on getting its way on who is to be awarded the UN leadership. At the same time, it is reportedly using that card to bid for other, perhaps more valuable, concessions from the West.

The previous straw poll, on Sept. 9, affirmed the first-place spot for Guterres, where he has landed from the start of the  voting. In an interview recently by Al Arabiya, he waffled on his premier place in the polls, acknowledging indirectly that it could change.

“If they [council members] decide that it must absolutely be a woman, then I’m sorry there is nothing I can do,” he said. He listed his accomplishments on gender equality in his role as head of the UN refugee agency, yet noted, “if the choice is different, I have to accept it.”

More specific preferences could be clearer on Oct. 5 through the introduction of anonymous color-coded ballots, with the permanent council members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — using one color. Elected members, Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela, will use another. If a candidate receives a “discourage” from a permanent member, it signals lack of support.

The council’s goal is to select a candidate by consensus through nine yes votes and no vetoes. The council will ultimately send its recommended candidate to the General Assembly for a last vote.

Many council members want the selection to be done by the end of October, to give the new person time to grow into what has been called an “impossible” job. Russia holds the rotating presidency of the council in October, and some European diplomats whisper that the country is eager to show its might by having the candidate sealed under its presidency.

The decision may occur by the time the US holds its presidential election on Nov. 8, but a few diplomats close to the selection procedure also insinuate that Russia will forestall a decision for as long as possible, relishing its obstinacy.

A child amid the attacks in eastern Aleppo
A child receiving attention amid the relentless aerial bombardment in eastern Aleppo, where two million people do not have access to water, the UN says. 

With the stunning failure of the cease-fire in Syria last week and a death grip overtaking eastern Aleppo through relentless airstrikes, three council members, Britain, France and the US, raged at Russia on Sept. 25 in council chambers. (To watch the video, click here.)

The Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, responded discursively, referencing a need to renew the political process while digressing to the flow of weapons by Western nations in Libya and other off-topics.

Much speculation over one woman who has been eyeing a candidacy, Kristalina Georgieva, European commissioner for budget and human resources and a Bulgarian, has not eased. Her name has never vanished from the roster of likely contenders, although her country backed Bokova, who runs Unesco, from the get-go. Bokova is Russia’s favorite, but not so for the US or Britain.

Earlier in September, rumors flew about Georgieva’s nomination by Croatia, Hungary and Latvia, with encouragement from Germany. That rumor led to Bulgaria saying it will not decide whether to switch its nomination until the Sept. 26 vote, though the government in Sofia, the capital, remained silent after the council’s results and it may not make an announcement soon.

Georgieva did not hide her enthusiasm to be nominated by her country during a visit to New York last week, gesturing at one public discussion: “We have given birth to more than one qualified candidate, so what’s wrong with that?”

Two candidates from one country participating in a council straw poll is not unknown, according to the Security Council Report, an independent nonprofit organization that makes information on the workings of the council public.

In 1991, Thorvald Stoltenberg and Gro Harlem Brundtland, both from Norway, became candidates when additional names were added on a blank piece of paper during the first proper straw poll in the selection process where Boutros Boutros-Ghali, of Egypt, was the eventual recommended candidate.

While the nominations were secret, it appears the two candidates were nominated by different council members.

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