Nine candidates are still in the running for UN secretary-general (SG) as the UN general debate kicks off this week, the so-called 'high-level week' that may be a make or break moment for many of their candidacies. This critical lobbying opportunity comes after several twists in the race over the past couple weeks, setting the stage for potential backroom deals between the candidates and Security Council members.
The Council held its fourth straw poll on 9 September with Antonio Guterres and Miroslav Lajcak holding onto their first and second spots respectively. In the days following the fourth poll, a bizarre and complicated series of news reports emerged surrounding Bulgaria's nomination. Reports out of the G20 gathering in China claimed Kristalina Georgieva, a long-rumoured potential candidate from Bulgaria, had received support from Croatia, Hungary, and Latvia with Germany's endorsement, and that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to approve Georgieva's candidacy. Russian officials, who reportedly support Bulgaria's current candidate Irina Bokova, firmly denied any such agreement and warned Merkel that attempts to influence Bulgaria's nomination were 'unacceptable.' In response, German officials rejected the statement and effectively accused the Russians of lying about what took place at the G20.
In the meantime, numerous reports indicated that Bulgaria was considering replacing Bokova with Georgieva as its nominee. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is said to be under pressure from his colleagues in the conservative European People's Party to support Georgieva against Guterres, a long-time socialist leader. After much speculation, Borissov announced Bokova would remain Bulgaria's nominee, at least until the next straw poll on 26 September.
To be appointed SG, a candidate must garner the support of at least nine Security Council members, including all of the permanent five (P5) members, and then receive approval from the UN General Assembly (usually a formality). Since a single 'discourage' vote from a P5 member represents a veto, ranking candidates by number of encourage votes can be deceiving, but for convenience, we'll examine each candidate in order of his or her standing after the fourth straw poll:
The former Portuguese prime minister turned UN refugee chief remains the frontrunner, clearly topping all four straw polls thus far. Many speculate that Russia is behind one of his two 'discourage' votes, suggesting that Guterres still has to overcome Moscow's preference for an Eastern European and the perception of being too pro-Western. Some UN watchers note that Guterres' lack of 'discourage' votes in the very first straw poll could be a sign that Moscow is willing to negotiate, while others question whether the Russians would accept a former NATO head of state with a strong record as a humanitarian activist. Citing rumours of Chinese and Russian interest in particular senior UN posts, UN expert Richard Gowan suggests a Guterres victory may come at a significant cost of having to rely on Russian or Chinese officials to run the UN's diplomatic and military missions.
The Slovak foreign minister surprised observers with his giant leap in the polls from tenth to second place in the third poll and by holding onto that spot in the fourth. Some have credited Lajcak's improvement to a timely shift in geopolitics: Slovakia currently holds the EU Presidency, and its pro-Russian prime minister publicly called for lifting EU sanctions on Russia after meeting with Putin. While this move may have earned Russian support, it could draw opposition from the United States.
Despite placing in the top four in each straw poll, I'd argue that the former Serbian foreign minister's candidacy has been dead in the water from the start due to the probable opposition of one or more of the Western P5 members. Observers of the SG race describing Jeremic as a contender seem to have forgotten that, as President of the General Assembly (2012-2013), his divisive leadership style and nationalistic agenda rankled Western countries on many occasions. One commentator sums up opposition to Jeremic, calling him 'fiercely anti-NATO, anti-Kosovo's independence, and a Serbian ultranationalist.'
The former Macedonian foreign minister has flown largely under the radar in the race, generating few headlines or controversies. Kerim made up some ground in the most recent poll but still maintains a damaging seven 'discourage' votes.
Hailed as an early frontrunner, the UNESCO chief and former Bulgarian diplomat is up against several major obstacles. Bulgaria's prime minister has said publicly that Sofia's support for Bokova will continue until 26 September, though he may reconsider if Bokova does not finish first or second in that poll. She is known as Russia's preferred candidate and is rumoured to face opposition from at least the United States and the UK. Her five 'discourage' votes make it very likely that at least one comes from a veto-wielding P5 member.
Once discussed as a possible compromise candidate after his second-place finish in the first straw poll, the former Slovenian president has lost a significant amount of support since then. Turk can't be completely counted out as a dark horse, but his best result came back in July.
With seven 'discourage' votes in each of the past two polls, the Argentine foreign minister and former UN chef de cabinet appears to be struggling to shed her reputation as the US favourite and as an establishment candidate. Some question whether the UK would support an Argentine, given long-running tensions over the Falkland Islands.
The reported favourite of UN staff, New Zealand's former prime minister's prospects remain dim with at least seven 'discourage' votes in the last three polls. Anne Marie Goetz argues that an old boy's club dynamic is at work, adding that Guterres' critiques of the UN as an elder statesman are viewed positively while the female candidates who have highlighted the UN's shortcomings are seen as 'adversarial.'
The former Moldovan deputy prime minister and foreign minister has struggled throughout the process, and her 11 'discourage' votes in the most recent poll guarantee that at least one (and probably more) is from a P5 member. As I've mentioned before, candidates don't have much to lose by staying in the race, and Gherman may find it helpful in raising her profile for other multilateral posts.
Although not an official candidate at this point, it's worth discussing the EU finance chief's prospects, given all of last week's chatter. Some have voiced concerns about Georgieva's lack of UN and diplomatic experience, but if nominated, it seems as though her biggest obstacle would be Russia. Not only is she associated with EU sanctions against Moscow as a two-time EU leader, but Russia's displeasure over the accounts of lobbying for her nomination suggest the Russians would be hard pressed to support her. In addition, non-permanent Council member Venezuela has stated 'it's too late' for more entries, and more members may feel the same after the UN's efforts to make the race more open and transparent this time around.
Heading into 'high-level week,' rumours are flying around UN circles. Some claim the Council is heading toward consensus for the next poll on 26 September while others suggest that if Guterres is blocked, we can forget about the rest of the list and others will have to jump in. In either case, the race may be hinging on some sort of horse-trade deal surrounding Guterres, which could include promises of senior-level positions. There's precedent for this type of arrangement: in the 1996 race, France repeatedly blocked Kofi Annan's appointment, relenting only after he agreed to appoint a French national as head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Analysing the race by the number of 'discourage' votes in the latest straw poll supports the idea of a 'Guterres or bust' situation. Setting aside geopolitics for a moment to consider the fourth poll results from a purely statistical perspective, any candidate with four or more 'discourage' votes (which is everyone except Guterres), has an 84% or greater chance of at least one of those votes being from a P5 member. We'll only know for sure once the Council finally differentiates the P5 votes with colour-coded ballots, which is expected in early October, but the stats suggest the candidates have a lot work to do in their meetings this week.
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