On Europe, the UN Security Council and the race for next UN-SG

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Written by Joël Ruet

The UN Security Council vote on Friday and the events of this weekend have suddenly turned the UN Secretary-General election from a marathon race into a sprint finish, with more twists and turns to come. Contrary to Ban Ki-moon’s election ten years ago, the race remains vivid. But the running league of candidates seems to be now consolidating, put aside some—hopefully ephemeral—confusion that has arisen this weekend in Eastern Europe, the legitimate region of origin of the next UN-SG.

There are two takeaways from the fourth straw poll which took place last Friday in New York and did not involve the use of vetoes or color coding to differentiate between the permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council.

First, men continue to dominate the rankings and only one woman, Irina Bokova, is in the top five. Old habits die hard in what remains an almost untouchable boys’ club: 14 of the 15 Ambassadors at the UN Security Council are men. This tragic gender inequality is reflected in their home capitals: 14 of the 15 Foreign Ministers and 14 of the 15 Heads of Government are men. President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Samantha Power are determined to put a woman as a leader at the UN, but they will need to convince the other Members States that, at last, the time has come.

Second, the list of leading frontrunners has stabilized and is now limited more or less to António Guterres, Miroslav Lajčák, Vuk Jeremić, and Irina Bokova. Once favorites of social media and experts alike, Susana Malcorra, Helen Clark, and Christiana Figueres seem to have lost any chance to make it to the final all important round. None of them are in a good position to secure the required nine votes from the 15 Members.

Portugal’s António Guterres continues to impress many and 12 members of the Security Council voted in his favor. However, he faces a double challenge: Russians prefer an Eastern European (Ban Ki-moon has disappointed everybody with his lack of interest and understanding of the region) and the Americans prefer a woman. Unfortunately for Guterres, he happens to be both the wrong gender and from the wrong region.

There was a surprise with the second strong finish of the Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, which has been attributed to Russian support. Slovakia currently holds the EU Presidency and the pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico met with Vladimir Putin before he publically called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia. This will not sit well with Ukraine, a fellow UN Security Council member, or with the United States who have been systematically calling on the Europeans to maintain sanctions. Many took note that after Fico’s meeting with Putin, Lajčák jumped from 10th to 2nd place in the rankings.

Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić has finished close to the top for last three polls. Jeremić is seen as the ‘perfect fit’ for Russia and many see his rise tied to Russia’s lobbying and support. Jeremić is strongly anti-NATO and his Serbian nationalist positions make him a controversial choice for the world’s top diplomatic position. His promotion by Russia may serve as a bargaining chip to the West, likely in an effort to cancel out António Guterres.

Along with Guterres, Irina Bokova is the only candidate to have scored consistently well, without fluctuation, in the last four Security Council straw polls. This indicates that neither were put forward by the United States or Russia as ‘their’ candidate to the other Security Council members. But contrary to Guterres, Bokova is from the right region and of the right gender, and is therefore very well placed to be a compromise candidate. After her time at UNESCO, she is known for being an astute diplomat. While defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refusing to back down to Moscow on a key Crimean UNESCO heritage site, she has managed to maintain an equally good relationship with Washington and Moscow.

The big puzzle this weekend came from Sofia, with the news that the Bulgarian government may replace Irina Bokova’s candidacy with EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.  According to many media and social media reports, this unexpected move is an attempt from the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) to promote their candidate against the socialist backed António Guterres, a former President of the Socialist International. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov is said to be under pressure from his EPP colleagues, including the infamous Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán who is visiting Sofia next week. However, swapping candidates would be political suicide for Borissov. While Bokova has good chances to win, Georgieva has no hope. The spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made it clear this weekend that they are not at all interested in her candidacy. A technocrat who spent her career at the World Bank and the European Commission, she will probably follow the path of Christiana Figueres, another very competent technocrat who collapsed at the Security Council straw polls in spite of the active support of the United States. Venezuela, a UN Security Council member, has already publicly indicated their opposition saying ‘it’s too late’ for more entries, and after a strong push from the General Assembly for a more transparent and public facing election, sources say many more members are believed to be of the same opinion.

One thing is for certain; there will be further twists and greater suspense in the coming weeks. Although we call it an election, it is traditionally a very secretive and complex negotiation between the five permanent members of the Security Council, who choose the Secretary General from a short list of leading candidates who successfully passed each successive straw poll. It is close to the election of the Pope, except perhaps the colored coded smoke.