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The battle for the UN’s top job


The battle for the UN’s top job

A leadership change is underway within the United Nations. For the past eight months, the UN has fielded contenders for the next Secretary-General and time is fast running out. Ban Ki-moon will conclude his term in December, and the Security Council has committed to nominating a replacement by the end of October. This year’s campaign may produce the UN’s first female Secretary-General and is an opportunity to appoint an impartial leader to steer the organisation through the challenges of the coming decade. Yet recent straw polls indicate that vested interests and geopolitical rivalries will override merit in the selection of the next UN chief.


The UN Secretary-General commands unique power in world politics. At once a civil servant and the world’s top diplomat, the role both serves and symbolises the collective institution of the United Nations. The position’s official remit is broad and ambiguous, granting significant and wide-reaching influence. The Secretary-General heads the secretariat, which comprises multiple high-level departments from political and economic affairs to humanitarian coordination and peacekeeping.

Considered the organisation’s chief administrative officer, the Secretary-General can also heavily influence the Security Council where, under the UN Charter they are expected to “bring any matter which in their opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. The Security Council’s five permanent members (P5) may be forced to work with the successful candidate for up to a decade: term limits do not exist, and Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon held the role for ten years apiece.


Photo: EPA/Andrew Gombert
Photo: EPA/Andrew Gombert

Since July, members of the Security Council have held a series of secret ballots to gauge support for nominees in which the council’s 15 members vote ‘encourage’, ‘discourage, or ‘no opinion’ for each candidate. These non-binding straw polls are designed to pressure candidates with little support into withdrawing. Results are quickly leaked by member-states to influence candidates’ perceptions and intentions.

The first two polls forced candidates from Croatia and Montenegro – who were regarded as lacking significant international experience – to withdraw early. Earlier this month a former frontrunner, Christina Figueres from Argentina, withdrew following plummeting support in the third and fourth rounds. Figueres had positioned herself as a reform candidate after leading the effort to secure the Paris Agreement in 2015, yet her campaign failed to muster confidence about security initiatives.

The veto-holding P5 will determine the successful appointee from a final consolidated shortlist. Approval by the General Assembly is considered a foregone conclusion; no candidate has ever been rejected once nominated. The non-binding nature of the straw polls allows the P5 to vote in a way that may not align with their actual preferences: they are free to encourage candidates whom they may veto in their final vote. This means that horse-trading votes for senior UN posts, or playing personality politics to rattle competition and upset alliances makes predictions at this stage of the process notoriously difficult.


Two themes have visibly dominated this year’s campaign.

The first is the possibility of electing the UN’s first female Secretary-General. Never in the organisation’s 70-year history has a woman held the position – and six of the original 12 applicants in this year’s campaign were women. Ban Ki-moon has called for a female replacement, and the Security Council’s sole female representative, America’s Samantha Power, has publicly advocated for reform of the UN leadership’s gender-imbalance (last year 92 per cent of senior UN positions went to men).

High profile female contenders with solid UN experience include New Zealand’s former prime minister and the current head of the United Nations Development Programme, Helen Clark, and Bulgarian Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. Columbia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, María Emma Mejía Vélez, recently called on the UN to “lead by example” and live up to its public declarations to achieve gender parity in managerial roles. While female candidates appeared well positioned in early rounds, they have all gained extra ‘discourage’ votes since July; Bokova is now the only female candidate remaining in the top five spots.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The second theme influencing the selection process is the likelihood that the successful candidate will be from Eastern Europe.

Appointees have traditionally rotated between six UN regional groups: ‘Africa’, ‘Asia-Pacific’, ‘Eastern Europe’, ‘Latin America and the Caribbean’, and ‘Western Europe and Others’. The only group to never place a Secretary-General is Eastern Europe, a region from which two-thirds of the remaining candidates hail. Yet the system of regional rotation is not prescribed and provides Eastern European hopefuls with no guarantees – particularly if the P5 votes against the region’s candidates, many of whom are supported by Russia. So how is the process shaping up, and what are the interests driving it?


Portugal’s António Guterres continues to lead the straw polls with 12 ‘encourage’ votes in the fourth round. Diplomats close to the process have speculated that one of Guterres’ ‘discourage’ votes came from Russia in an effort to slow his advance. Guterres is the former prime minister of a NATO member state and is thus unlikely to curry favour with Moscow. As a Western European he is also from the ‘wrong’ region; both China and Russia will be keen to support candidates closer to their respective spheres of influence.

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One such candidate is Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčak, whose ‘encourage’ vote soared from ninth to second place in the third poll. Lajčak’s rapid rise may be attributable to Moscow’s support: Slovakia’s pro-Russian Prime Minister, Robert Fico, met with Vladimir Putin shortly before the third poll and called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia. The US and Ukraine – which holds a non-permanent seat on the Security Council – will likely oppose Lajčak’s rise.

Irina Bokiva now appears to be the only female contender with a shot. Representing Bulgaria, she is from the ‘right’ region to gain Moscow’s support and of the ‘right’ gender to gain Washington’s. Bokova is considered an astute diplomat who maintains good relations with Russia and the US, yet her country may ultimately abandon her. The Bulgarian government could replace her with EU Commissioner Kristina Georgieva due to domestic pressure from the European People’s Party to counter the socialist-backed Guterres. British Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft recently urged candidates with less than nine ‘encourage’ votes (the threshold required for formal UNSC resolution) to withdraw. If Bokova fails to gain two more ‘encourage’ votes in the fifth straw poll, her replacement with Georgieva seems increasingly likely.

Eastern Europe may still hold out hopes for Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim. The former UNGA President is a strong advocate for multilateralism and climate security and has avoided upsetting the UN establishment by adopting neutral positions towards key issues in this year’s campaign, including the 2010 UN-linked cholera outbreak in Haiti. Kerim’s ability to avert polarising the P5 will keep his chances alive as a close contender behind Lajčak and Jeremić.

Slovenia’s Danilo Türk has fallen further behind. He is regarded as a technocrat with a solid track record in the UN and is viewed positively by the US for supporting the deployment of Slovenian troops to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. Yet UN officials have questioned his managerial and leadership skills and consider him less charismatic than the current frontrunner Guterres. As one diplomat remarked, “it seems to me that Guterres won the heart and minds but Türk won only the minds”. Turk is unlikely to be able convince Britain and France he is the strong leader they need as they seek to confront European security issues.

Argentine’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Susana Malcorra retains US support and an equal distribution of votes in the last round, but faces an uphill battle against British opposition due to the lingering Falkland Islands dispute.

Ultimately, one thing is certain: the battle for the next Secretary-General will be one to watch.

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