Mrs. UN Secretary General: The Final Race Ticks In

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Written by Joel Ruet

This year’s election process for the position of the next UN Secretary General is by far the most open and transparent in the UN’s history following 70 years of closed-door negotiating and secretive lobbying. On Tuesday for the first time, ten out of twelve official candidates took part in two televised debates, where they unfolded their visions for the future of the UN and set out their plans to tackle the numerous challenges the organization faces today.

In what has been a pretty animated conversation for UN standards, candidates were pressed on issues such as UN reform, international justice and the International Criminal Court, the migration crisis, the conflicts in Syria, Palestine and South Sudan, and the principle of regional rotation that would make it Eastern Europe’s turn to get the top job.

The debates were timely as on July 21 the UN Security Council will hold the first straw poll to gauge the viability of the candidates and narrow the field.  This week’s first deep dive into the candidates helped get a clearer picture of who are the handful of candidates that stood out and will probably make it through to the next round. It does seem that it is the year of woman—at least as far as this election is concerned—and the four candidates that clearly came on top were all women: Irina Bokova, Helen Clark, Christiana Figueres and Susana Malcorra.

Irina Bokova came across as an experienced diplomat with deep understanding of the issues covered and the key challenges facing the UN. Drawing on her experience and expertise at UNESCO, she highlighted multiculturalism and education as key pillars for the future of the UN. China, Russia and the G77 are keen to maintain the principle of regional rotation and thus her Eastern European origin is an additional strong card that may enable her to successfully cross the finish line. On these grounds, she definitely consolidated her frontrunner status by delivering a solid performance with a pinch of soul, as she was the only one mentioning freedom of speech and safety of journalists. This did not go unnoticed on social media.

Helen Clark was sharp and gave relevant and concise responses. Her much debated dynamism was on full display, perhaps to the extent of being perceived as a bit patronizing. Undoubtedly, her main asset is her experience, but concerns over her divisive leadership style, underlined by a sizable part of the international community, and the fact that she belongs to the overrepresented OECD group of countries are strong obstacles that she will have to overcome.

Christina Figueres was the last one to enter the UNSG race and yesterday’s performance was her baptism by fire. Her joining makes it an interesting revival to the race. She came out as smart, ambitious and well-articulated. Clearly, she is a competent technocrat but beyond actual skills, and as a recent entry in the race, she has little time left ahead to fine-tune her messages, between delivering her position, without appearing too forceful. Ultimately, being considered as close to the U.S., her biggest challenge will be diplomatic, to actually convince Russia and China that she will be the safe pair of hands the UN needs.

Last in the alphabetical order, Susana Malcorra rallied under the grand yet generic slogan of “people, planet, profit” and delivered polished but structured responses. As Ban Ki-moon’s former Chef de Cabinet, she is a UN connoisseur, and understands the organization’s operating model and complexities. Paradoxically, this is her main strength but also her biggest weakness. Her alleged politicking and favoritism shown to the U.S. and her implication in a major UN peacekeeping scandal in the Central African Republic have been widely criticized. In a time when everyone is calling for UN reforms, her closeness to the UN establishment makes her look more like a force that will oppose rather than drive the change the organization desperately needs.

The momentum is building for the next UN Secretary General to be a woman, with several candidates of high quality. This week’s debates constitute the clearest indicator to date that we may have the first female UN Secretary General in history. Whether the world’s political elite will finally break the diplomacy’s glass ceiling remains to be seen.