EU in pole position in race for UN Secretary General

The UN headquarters in New York. [Utenriksdepartementet UD/Flickr]

A secret vote held yesterday (29 August) in the UN Security Council has put three candidates from EU countries in the lead in the race to replace UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose second term expires on 31 December.

Portugal’s António Guterres, Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajčák and Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova emerged as leaders according to a multitude of leaks from the vote.

This was the third such straw poll in which the 15 members of the Security Council voted with three options: to encourage, discourage or express no opinion on any of the remaining 10 candidates in the race. Following votes held on 21 July and 4 August, the candidates of Croatia Vesna Pusić and of Montenegro Igor Lukšić withdrew from the race [see list of the candidates].

Four Europeans lead in race for UN Secretary-General

Portugal’s António Guterres, Slovenia’s Danilo Türk, Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova and Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić have emerged as the frontrunners in a race to replace UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose second term expires on 31 December.

Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, who served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years, emerged as frontrunner in all three votes held so far. However, he received two “discourage” votes on 5 August and three such votes yesterday.

In the first vote, Guterres received zero “discourage” votes, but tellingly, he obtained two in the second vote. There have been speculations that Russia and China voted to “discourage” Guterres, as those countries appear to have other plans for the outcome of the process.

The permanent members of the Security Council ( the ‘P5’ of USA, Russia, China, UK and France) hold veto power. However, at this stage the vote was anonymous and the positions of the P5 are not revealed. A new vote on 9 September will be held with coloured straws for the P5.

Big surprise

Lajčák, the Slovak foreign minister, made a surprising jump to second position, after having trailed in the first two votes. On 5 August he obtained only two “encourage” votes against nine yesterday. His surge could be seen as a success for the Slovak diplomacy.

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Irina Bokova, who currently leads Unesco, the UN’s largest agency, came third, the same position she held in the first vote and an improvement from the fifth ranks she obtained in the second vote. She is clearly the woman in leading position, followed by Argentina’s Susanna Malcorra, who came this time in fifth position.

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Vuk Jeremić, a former Serbian foreign minister, has stayed among the leading four candidates throughout the race.

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It can be seen as a surprise that New Zealand’s Helen Clark, who rides high on social media, came seventh and stands little if no chance at all of being elected. Another big surprise is that Danilo Türk, a former President of Slovenia, who came second at the first vote and fourth at the second vote, is now eighth.

Nathalia Gherman, the candidate of Moldova, and Christiana Figueres, a veteran Costa Rican diplomat who headed UN climate negotiations, are in the bottom of the ranking with 12 “discourage” votes each.

The aim of the three votes held so far was to discourage as many as possible of the candidates, so that real horse trading could begin between the P5 on a smaller number of candidates. It is widely considered that candidates in the second half of the ranking have no realistic chance to be elected and should withdraw.

Regional groups

The Eastern European group is the only one that has not had a Secretary General so far (see background).

According to UN traditions, the world is divided in regional groups. The Eastern European group comprises Russia, the countries of the former Soviet Union, and of the Soviet bloc, including all new EU members from Central and Eastern Europe and all the EU candidate countries except Turkey.

Portugal is part of the “Western European and Others” group, which also includes the US and Canada.

The Russian representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. was recently quoted as saying that his country would like the next UN Secretary-General to be from its regional group. In the current situation this seems to give advantage to Lajčák and Bokova. China too reportedly considers that the regional principle should be respected and that it is time for Eastern Europe to get the UN top job.

The UN Charter, signed in 1945 as the foundation of the organisation, says relatively little about how a Secretary-General is to be selected, aside from Article 97, which notes that the candidate “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

The ideal candidate would have the “contact with the global public opinion and authority to call to the major and minor powers, particularly in the Security Council, to act timely,” the President of the General Assembly Morgens Lykketoft (Denmark) recently said.

Under the UN Charter, the Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. Ban Ki-moon predecessors as Secretary-General were: Kofi Annan (Ghana) who held office from January 1997 to December 2006; Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), who held office from January 1992 to December 1996; Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar (Peru), who served from January 1982 to December 1991; Kurt Waldheim (Austria), who held office from January 1972 to December 1981; U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), who served from November 1961, when he was appointed acting Secretary-General (he was formally appointed Secretary-General in November 1962) to December 1971; Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), who served from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in Africa in September 1961; and Trygve Lie (Norway), who held office from February 1946 to his resignation in November 1952.

  • 9 September: Secret straw poll vote to be held with coloured straws for P5 members.

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