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UN secretary-general race: Taking stock after the third straw poll

UN secretary-general race: Taking stock after the third straw poll
Published 1 Sep 2016 

The results from this week's straw poll for the UN secretary-general (SG) race introduced a couple of new twists, although former Portuguese prime minister turned UN refugee chief António Guterres remains in the lead. He received 11 'encourage' votes from the UN Security Council's 15 members but picked up an additional 'discourage' vote, giving him three 'discourages' this time around.

The second and third runners-up, however, have shifted yet again as lobbying continues behind the scenes. Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak made a surprising comeback to take second place with nine 'encourage' votes and five 'discourages.' He was the only candidate to garner more 'encourage' votes than in round two, increasing his 'encourages' by an astounding seven votes. Lajcak's rise also represents the first time a candidate without significant UN experience has cracked the top five, suggesting that Security Council members may still be willing to consider a UN outsider.

Security Council members also continue to grow more discriminating in their voting. Excluding the results for Igor Luksic, who withdrew after the second poll, Council members cast 11% more 'discourage' votes and 25% fewer 'no opinion' votes in the third poll than in the second round while the number of 'encourage' votes stayed roughly the same.

The politics of dropping out

Two of the initial 12 candidates have withdrawn from the SG race so far, and a number of others are undoubtedly contemplating the tricky question of whether and when to call it quits. Moldova's Natalia Gherman and Costa Rica's Christiana Figueres, for example, tied for last place in the latest round with two 'encourages,' 12 'discourages,' and one 'no opinion' vote. Figueres in particular lost a lot of ground from round two, losing more encourages and gaining more discourages than any other candidate.

Some UN watchers expect more candidates to drop out before the next straw poll, which reportedly will be the first to differentiate the Council's veto-wielding permanent five (P5) members from the elected members with colour-coded ballots. Before Monday's vote, UK Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft suggested that low-scoring candidates should withdraw to help narrow the field.

The candidates, however, don't seem to have much to lose by staying in the race, other than whatever resources they choose to spend on the campaign trail. They continue to raise their international profiles but don't seem to hurt their reputations even with low scores in the race. Several of the failed contenders from the 2006 race have gone on to hold prestigious posts despite being discouraged by P5 members during their candidacies, including Ashraf Ghani as President of Afghanistan and Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In addition, the unpredictability of the race and Council members' apparent willingness to change their positions throughout the straw polls may encourage candidates to remain in the race. One journalist writes, 'with Lajcak's leap from the near bottom to the near top of the list, others might wish for the same and stay in the race.' Advocates for selecting the first female SG are also likely to encourage the female contenders to stay in for as long as possible. [fold]

So while Gherman and Figueres may ultimately be headed for the exit, they and others may stick around a bit longer to see if they can either pull off 'a Lajcak' or remain as the last one standing after the P5 kills off each other's favourites. New Zealand's Helen Clark has already tweeted 'la lucha continua' ('the struggle continues'), suggesting that she's in for at least one more round.

Many thanks to UN Security Council members for continued support for #Helen4SG. La lucha continua. #NextSG #She4SG

— Helen Clark (@Helen4SG) August 29, 2016

The politics of jumping in

There's no deadline for candidates to enter the race, and some UN watchers are speculating about whether new contenders will emerge before the next round. Last-minute candidates may face criticism from the wider UN membership for not coming forward earlier in the process, given that the UN has introduced reforms to make this year's race more transparent, including a formal call for candidates and public hearings in front of the UN General Assembly.

The big question with regard to new candidates is who could they be? European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva's name continues to crop up, although it's unclear which member state would nominate her (her own Bulgaria has already endorsed UNESCO chief Irina Bokova), and if she would be acceptable to Russia. The names of several Latin American women have also been floated over the years – including Mexican senior UN official Alicia Bárcena, Costa Rican economist Rebeca Grynspan, and Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín – but none seem to have shown interest of late. While it's technically possible for former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to revive his candidacy without the Turnbull government's endorsement, I've argued that's unlikely, in large part because it would be a pretty hard sell to get another member state to nominate him after being so publicly rejected by his own government.

It's perhaps more likely that new candidates would emerge if the Council becomes deadlocked after the colour-coded ballots. If so, it's possible that Council members would seek out potential candidates themselves as opposed to relying on the same lists.

The SG endgame

There is no set timeframe for the selection process, although diplomats are aiming to wrap it up by October to give the next SG a transition period before he or she assumes the post on 1 January 2017. The first colour-coded straw poll is tentatively scheduled for 9 September.  Although New Zealand takes over the rotating Security Council presidency for September, it will cede responsibility for overseeing the SG straw polls to Russia (president for October) to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest with Clark's candidacy.

Several major events at the UN in September may also affect the race proceedings. Current President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft, who has played an influential role in reforming the process, will hand over the one-year post to Fiji's Peter Thomson on 13 September. In addition, the general debate (so-called 'high-level week') starts on 20 September, providing another opportunity for candidates to lobby heads of state and government or to engage in horse-trading.

The race is difficult to predict, especially as geopolitical concerns, personal relationships, and vested interests continue to dominate the selection process (for more background, see The Interpreter's 'UN secretary-general race: What's really behind the straw poll results?). Although Guterres came out on top in all three polls, Moscow prefers a candidate from Eastern Europe, and many speculate that one of his 'discourage' votes comes from Russia. As one diplomat at the UN has asserted, 'The real question is whether this discourage vote is tactical, in order to exact a price for Russian agreement, or whether it is substantial and they are saying: we don't want him.' The results of the colour-coded ballot and the behind-the-scenes negotiations that follow will be critical in determining whether Guterres can tough it out, if Lajcak has peaked at the right moment as a compromise, or new candidates need to be sought out.

Photo courtesy of United Nations

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