Leaked results from last week's second straw poll for the UN secretary-general (SG) race show António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister turned UN refugee chief, still in the lead. Guterres garnered an impressive 11 'encourage' votes but has picked up two 'discourage' votes since the first poll, leaving the contest open to more twists and turns, especially if either 'discourage' vote came from one of the Security Council's veto-wielding permanent five (P5) members. 

The results also show a Security Council growing more discriminating in its voting. Excluding the results for Croatia's Vesna Pusi?, who withdrew after the first poll, Council members cast 64% more 'discourage' votes and 23% fewer 'encourage' votes in the second poll than in the first round. Even candidates who appear to have gained momentum also have new concerns: the only one to garner more 'encourage' votes from the first to the second round was Susana Malcorra (Argentina), but she also picked up two more 'discourage' votes. Vuk Jeremi? (Serbia) was the only contender able to shed a 'discourage' vote in the second round, but he also lost an 'encourage'. 

Although the non-binding straw polls are meant to gauge support for the candidates, it's worth keeping several aspects of the polls in mind: they are conducted by secret ballot, Security Council members can encourage or discourage multiple candidates, and these initial polls don't differentiate the votes of the P5, who are under no obligation to discourage candidates they might ultimately veto. As I've noted before, the fact that the race has played out differently each time and that the P5 members maintain such wide-ranging priorities and geopolitical outlooks makes it difficult to predict and leaves the door open for surprise contenders. Following the first poll on 21 July, UN expert Richard Gowan went so far as to say that 'anyone who claims that they know who will be running the United Nations one year from now is a clairvoyant, a fantasist or a liar'.

So while betting on the final victor may be a fool's errand at this stage in the game, we can get a better idea for what might be driving the poll results by taking a closer look at some of the factors at play in Security Council members' decision-making. In addition to the P5, this year's Council members include Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela. While most members give lip service to the characteristics flagged late last year in the UN's kick-off letter (proven leadership and managerial abilities; extensive experience in international relations; and strong diplomatic, communication, and multilingual skills), the straw poll results seem to indicate they have a confluence of other calculations in mind as well: 


P5 members in particular are interested in ensuring that the next SG aligns with their geopolitical outlooks. Gowan argues that China and Russia may ultimately block Guterres, noting 'as a humanitarian, a former leader of a founding NATO country and an effective politician, he is not exactly Beijing and Moscow's natural selection, however wide his overall appeal.' Another UN expert, Anne Marie Goetz, agrees that 'geopolitical considerations trumped merit in the voting' but notes that the lack of 'discourages' for Guterres in the first round is a sign that Moscow is willing to negotiate. Goetz points out that Russia's friends in the region did well, such as Serbia's Jeremi?, while candidates whose countries have disputes with Russia have struggled, including Moldova's Natalia Gherman and Montenegro's Igor Lukši?. Some observers question whether the UK would support Malcorra, given its long-running tensions with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Playing the game

Council members also may be using their straw poll votes in an adversarial fashion, either to keep their own preferred candidates alive or to block candidates that are perceived as too close to their rivals. Gowan and others have noted that the P5 may very well kill off each other's favourites. Russia reportedly delayed the date of the second straw poll in an effort to slow down the selection process, and some observers are speculating that Moscow may have discouraged Guterres in the second round to slow or block his advance. Others suspect that New Zealand, which has its own candidate in the race (Helen Clark), cast one of the 'discourage' votes for Guterres.

Personality politics

P5 member states, which must work with the SG regularly for up to 10 years, are almost certainly weighing their ability to work alongside the future SG. Back in 1996, then US Permanent Representative to the UN Madeleine Albright's personality conflict and differences with former SG Boutros Boutros-Ghali contributed to Washington's decision to block his re-election. On the other hand, Malcorra, the rumoured US favourite in this year's race, has a reputation for being able to get things done in the UN system and is said to have established a strong working relationship with National Security Adviser Susan Rice when Rice was the US permanent representative to the UN and Malcorra was the UN under-secretary-general for field support. One Council diplomat was quoted after the first straw poll as saying 'we want a strong secretary-general, but not an independent one'.

UN insiders vs outsiders

Security Council members appear to have fairly strong opinions on whether conditions are ripe for an insider or an outsider at the helm of the UN. Back in 2006, the US reportedly felt that an insider wouldn't be able to clean up the scandals inside the organisation. In this year's race, the top contenders in both straw polls have extensive UN backgrounds or at least some experience at the organisation while the candidates without it have fallen to the bottom, suggesting that Council members are interested in someone with UN expertise. This preference probably stems in part from frustration over Ban Ki-moon's lack of depth on some UN issues even after almost ten years on the job.

Horse trades

If there aren't already some favours being traded (most likely in the form of senior UN posts) there probably will be before the race is over. While many of the candidates have publicly stated they would make appointments based on merit and improve geographic and gender representation among the UN's senior ranks, none has pledged to stop P5 countries from claiming the leadership of specific UN entities. 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. In 2006, South Korea signed trade deals and promised development assistance to Council members in an effort to garner support for Ban, and Ban himself has succumbed to pressure to reserve certain posts for P5 nationals. This patronage system seems to be persisting, as China is already rumoured to be seeking the peacekeeping chief spot this time around.

It's interesting to see not only what is influencing the P5's decision-making processes, but also what isn't. At the outset of this year's race, many assumed that Eastern Europe's claim to the post and calls for the first female SG would be more heavily weighted. So far, however, Eastern European women have floundered, while Portugal's Guterres tops the table. We can't completely ignore the geography question, as Russia has voiced its preference for an SG from Eastern Europe, but Moscow hasn't enforced its position as strongly as China did to prop up Asian candidates back in 2006. And on gender, 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'.

Regardless, it seems clear that geopolitical concerns, personal relationships, and vested interests continue to dominate the selection process, and we may be in for many more polls before the race gets resolved.

Photo: Flickr/United Nations