Earlier this month, nine candidates for UN secretary-general (SG) sat in the hot seat for a first round of unprecedented 'informal dialogues' before the UN General Assembly. Over the course of three days, the candidates rotated in two-hour slots, fielding some 800 questions from member states, civil society groups, and the public.

While the public hearings revealed some insights into the candidates' personas and their general priorities as well as those of UN member states, they unfortunately didn't tell us much about the actual prospects of the contenders. There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, and most importantly, as I noted in February, the candidates' chances are still largely determined by the UN Security Council's permanent five (P5) members. The UN has taken steps over the last six months to make the SG selection process more open and inclusive of the General Assembly, but the P5 remains the ultimate decision-maker, and geopolitical realities and their previous interactions with the candidates are more likely to shape their views than a candidate's performance at the hearings. If a performance does happen to influence a P5 position, it's likely to only factor in discussions behind closed doors rather than in any public deliberations. While the President of the General Assembly has touted the hearings as a 'potential game-changer,' even he admits that 'if there are many, many candidates and no clear favorite, it could very well be that the absolute final word will [still] be from the Security Council.'

Secondly, the push to make the SG's selection more transparent, combined with the reality of the Council's role in the process, means the candidates have to play a tricky balancing act in public appearances. On the one hand, the candidates are striving to demonstrate that they possess the characteristics flagged in the UN's historic kick-off letter late last year: proven leadership and managerial abilities; extensive experience in international relations; and strong diplomatic, communication, and multilingual skills. Vuk Jeremic (Serbia), for example, was quick to cite his own accomplishments as President of the General Assembly. But at the same time, the candidates must remain acceptable to each of the veto-wielding P5 members, which often means avoiding substantive positions on controversial issues, such as Ukraine and Syria, or appearing too independently minded. When asked about how to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, candidates spoke in general terms about building trust, and Vesna Pusic (Croatia) even acknowledged that she didn't have anything revolutionary to say. An aide to one candidate told a reporter that the SG selection isn't like national elections, '...where the aim is just be popular. In this election, if you are too popular, you might scare off the P5. So it's a delicate balance.' 

Then there is the format of the hearings themselves which, as is unfortunately often the case with UN meetings, seemed to discourage substantive and comprehensive responses. The candidates received questions from multiple member states one after another, and each member asked upwards of five questions. The sheer number of questions meant that the candidates often only had time to give surface-level responses, and the time restrictions allowed candidates to dodge thorny questions by running out the clock. Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) seemed to do this particularly well with Ukraine's question on what she would do to support the General Assembly resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, specifically Crimea.

Finally, the hearings aren't necessarily a great indicator of how the race will play out because the field is still fluid. There is no deadline for entering the race, and speculation continues to swirl about additional nominations, including former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. As UN expert Richard Gowan has suggested:

Rudd may have hoped that he could sit out this round of UN blathering, and then enter the race at a later stage as a bigger-name candidate after the Balkan minnows had gone home. A number of other serious potential nominees, such as Argentinian Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, are also said to be sitting back to watch events.

While this first round of informal dialogues doesn't appear to have given us a sense of who are the early frontrunners and laggards in the race, there were still some benefits to having held them. It was another step toward a more transparent SG process, and some commentators, including several of the candidates themselves, credit the hearings with increasing interest in the UN. The hearings also gave us a glimpse of the candidates and their ability to navigate competing interests at the UN, introducing them to member states and the public. This means once the appointment is eventually made, the world is likely to know quite a bit more about the new SG than it did about Ban Ki-moon when he assumed the role in 2007. Lastly, the hearings forced the candidates to sink hours into defining their positions and considering their visions for the organisation, efforts that almost certainly will help the next SG get off to a running start.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations