Portuguese leader leads in UN race

UN chief Antonio Guterres

Portuguese candidate leads first round of SC straw poll for UN chief….reports Arul Louis

Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres
Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres

Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres emerged as the surprise front-runner for the post of Secretary General in the first informal poll of the Security Council in an early set back to expectations that a East European woman would be the top contender for the job, according to diplomats unofficially briefed on the secret vote held Thursday.

A woman or a East European has never headed the global body and this time it has been widely expected the job of the world’s top diplomat will go to a woman amid an intense female power campaign at the UN.

In the field of 12 candidates that has six women and eight East Europeans, Unesco Director General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who is both, came in third, according to the diplomats.

Former Slovenian President Danilo Turk placed second and two former East European foreign ministers, Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia and Vuk Jeremic of Serbia shared the third place with Bokova, the diplomats said.

The straw poll was described as an “indicative vote” by Japan’s Permanent Representative Koro Bessho, who is the Council president for this month. The Council will be holding several straw polls and it is still possible that a woman or a East European — or one who is both — ultimately emerges as the top candidate.

The polls will continue till the Council can agree on a candidate who garners the most votes in the 15-member body without being vetoed by a permanent member. That candidate will be recommended to the General Assembly, which has historically approved the sole Council nominee.

India and several countries have called upon the Council to present several names they can freely vote on.

In another surprise, the Council retreated into secrecy, turning back the trend of transparency. Bessho refused to disclose the voting when he met reporters after the poll. He said that he would not share the voting information with even Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, an advocate of openness in electing the successor to Ban Ki-moon.

Lykketoft shot back in a letter to Permanent Representatives that the secrecy “does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency.”

The details of the voting, nevertheless, fluttered across the UN grapevine as diplomats in the Council and officials shared the information with others.

US Permanent Representative Susan Rice and Lykketoft took initiatives to open up the secretive election process and to invite women to apply for the job for the first time in the UN’s 70-year history
The 12 candidates made campaign presentations to the Assembly and faced questions from diplomats and civil society representatives. The candidates also participated in programs by organisations like the International Peace Institute and al-Jazeera TV.

At the straw poll the Council members gave the candidates ratings of “encourage,” “discourage” or “no opinion.” Guterres, who was also a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, received 12 “encourage” ratings and three “no opinion” according to diplomats.

When he appeared before the Assembly, diplomats said they were impressed by him and gave his performance high marks.

The job of Secretary General has been rotating among regional groups since the 1960s and if the pattern is to continue it would be the turn of a European to succeed Ban from Asia. Three West Europeans have held the post so far.

Two Latin American women, Argentine Foreign Minister Susanna Malcorra and Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, who heads the UN climate change organisation, are also running for the job. Malcorra is a former chief-of-staff to Ban.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who now heads the UN Development Programme, is also a contender.

Her country is grouped with Europe at the UN.

Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, has expressed interest in running for the post, according to media reports. He is now the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, where he has been a strong advocate of India’s membership to the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation trade group that stretches from Australia to Chile, embracing China, Russia and the US.

There is a no deadline for nominations for Secretary General and candidates can theoretically enter the fray till the final vote in December.