Race Heating Up For Next UN Secretary General – Analysis


By Ashok Sajjanhar

The process for the selection of the ninth Secretary General (SG) of the United Nations (UN), who will assume the position of incumbent Dr. Ban Ki-moon when his term expires at the end of this year, has taken off in right earnest.

The fourth of the so-called straw polls — named as such to determine which way the wind is blowing — on September 9 has failed to throw up any decisive verdict or even indicate a favourite candidate. On the contrary, the results of the polls have made the situation even more tortuous and confused.

But first things first. How does the selection of the top diplomat of the most important and visible world body take place?

There are sparse rules governing selection to this significant position. The only guiding text is Article 97 of the United Nations Charter, which states that “The Secretary General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” As a result, the selection is subject to the veto of any of the five permanent members of the Security Council. In 1946, the General Assembly adopted a resolution stating that it was “desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only for the consideration of the General Assembly, and for debate on the nomination in the General Assembly to be avoided.”

The Charter’s scant treatment of the subject has since been supplemented by other procedural rules and accepted practices. Traditionally, candidates from the permanent five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States) are not considered for the position of Secretary General to avoid further concentration of power in hands of a single country. This is a matter of precedent and convention, rather than a written rule. It is also a matter of convention that the position is normally occupied by representative of a small state and not a country that is politically, economically and militarily strong and powerful.

There is also the practice of regional representation according to which the position rotates between different regions. Eastern Europe is the only region within the UN system whose representative has so far not occupied the position of top diplomat of the world body. Increasing number of commentators is hence speculating that the next SG could be from Eastern Europe. However, after expansion of the European Union (EU) in 2004 most countries, barring Russia, of the Eastern Europe Group are de facto part of Western Europe.

Since the position has been a male bastion during all the 70 years of UN existence, there is a growing chorus led by the US, UK and several others that the next SG should be a woman. SG Ban has also expressed his preference for a woman SG to take his position. He has however qualified that the decision rests with SC and not with him.

Since the position has been a male bastion during all the 70 years of UN existence, there is a growing chorus led by the US, UK and several others that the next SG should be a woman.

To begin with there were twelve candidates in the fray. Out of those still in contention, five are women.

In the first of many expected informal, closed-door, secret ballot straw polls on 21 July 2016, members of Security Council were asked to indicate whether they “encourage”, “discourage” or had “no opinion” regarding the candidates. A second straw poll of the same nature was held on August 5, a third on August 29 and a fourth on September 9, 2016. The list in descending order of number of ”encourage” votes received in the fourth straw poll is as follows. Votes received by the candidates in the first three polls are also given:

Antonio Guterres, Portugal 12 2 1 11-3-1 11-2-2 12-0-3
Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia 10 4 1 9-5-1 2-9-4 7-3-5
Vuk Jeremic, Serbia 9 4 2 7-5-3 7-7-1 9-4-2
Srgjan Kerim, Macedonia 8 7 0 7-5-3 8-4-3 9-5-1
Irina Bokova, Bulgaria 7 5 3 7-7-1 8-6-1 7-4-4
Danilo Turk, Slovenia 7 6 2 6-7-2 6-7-2 9-5-1
Susana Malcorra, Argentina 7 7 1 6-8-1 6-8-1 8-5-2
Helen Clark, New Zealand 6 7 2 5-6-4 7-5-3 11-2-2
Christiana Figueres, Costa Rica 5 10 0 2-12-1 3-10-2 4-4-7
Natalia Gherman, Moldova 3 11 1 2-12-1 5-8-2 5-5-5
Igor Luksic, Montenegro 3-10-2
Vesna Pusic, Croatia 2-11-2

The fourth straw poll showed significant shifts in the levels of support for several candidates but still placed António Guterres of Portugal at the top as was the case at the end of the first three polls in number of “yes” votes received. The position for Guterres however continues to be as precarious and unsteady as it was after the second straw poll. It is only in the first straw poll that he did not receive any negative vote. It is now becoming increasingly clear that one of the two negative votes that he got in the fourth round possibly comes from Russia who might be willing to dig in its heels and decide to use its veto against his candidature. Russia has clearly indicated that it strongly prefers an East European candidate for this position. If Russia stymies Guterres’s hopes for the top position, it is possible that he could be offered the position of Deputy Secretary General, although three earlier occupants out of the four since the office was established in 1997, have hailed from West European and Others Group. So far DSGs have been from Canada, UK and Tanzania with the current incumbent being from Sweden. Work over the next two weeks is cut out for Guterres to find out who the negative votes belong to and try to neutralise them.

In the fourth straw poll, out of the five women contestants, only one, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, managed to come within the first five contenders. In the third poll she had come third and had raised hopes that since she is both a woman and from East Europe she could possibly emerge as a consensus candidate in case subsequent rounds are not able to throw up an acceptable choice. The fourth poll has registered a huge blow to her aspirations. She can however not be written off as in the back room deals she could still emerge as a powerful contender. Susana Malcorra, Argentina who had stood third in the second poll has now been relegated to the seventh position, significantly diminishing her chances.

Two results of the fourth poll are noteworthy. First, as mentioned above, although Guterres continues to maintain his lead in the “yes” votes, the number of “no” votes he received increased from “nil” in the first poll to 2 in the second, 3 in the third and now again 2 in the fourth poll. This could spell serious danger for him if one of the “no” votes is from a veto-wielding permanent member of UNSC.

The second significant development is the meteoric rise of Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia from virtually the end of the table to second position from the top, just next to Guterres, in the third poll. He has maintained this position in the fourth poll and even bettered it by moving one of the negative votes from the third poll to a positive one in the latest poll. This could prove to be significant. He could emerge as the compromise candidate in subsequent discussions. It is however impossible to make any prognosis of the final shape of things at this stage.

Going forward to the fifth poll, many candidates at the bottom of the table are expected to drop off. However Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand stated a few days ago that his compatriot Helen Clark who stands at eighth position in the rankings will continue in the contest and that he will take up her candidature with leaders of the US, Russia and others for their support.

The Council will continue to hold straw polls until there is a majority candidate without a single veto from a permanent member of the Council. That name would then be officially transferred to the Assembly whose membership will formally select the candidate.

The fifth straw poll will be held on September 26 when most world leaders are in New York for the UN General Assembly Session. Some changes could hence be expected. The fifth poll could shed some light on the final shape of things on who will don the mantle of the ”most impossible” job in the world. At this moment, the field is wide open, though shrinking fast, and ripe for intense discussions and negotiations in New York and major capitals of the world.

*The author is a former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

One thought on “Race Heating Up For Next UN Secretary General – Analysis

  • September 16, 2016 at 11:47 am

    I am surprised that American President Barack Hussein Obama is not listed as a candidate…has he not expressed interest in the Secretariat?


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