A primer on World Bank voting procedures

A primer on World Bank voting procedures

The nomination process for the next World Bank president has yielded three official candidates: Jim Kim of the United States, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, and Jose Antonio Ocampo of Colombia (Jeffrey Sachs withdrew his candidacy after the United States nominated Kim). According to new procedures agreed to last year, candidates will now interview separately with the Bank’s executive board, comprised of 25 executive directors. Once the interviews are complete, the board can begin its deliberations. Along the way, the body has the option of conducting an informal straw poll to test support for the various candidates and potentially winnow the field (the procedures recommend, but do not require, a straw poll if there are more than three candidates).

When it comes time to make a decision, most board members will likely push to do so by consensus rather than by vote. The procedures declare "the objective of the Board of Executive Directors is to select the President by consensus." In most cases, the Bank’s board does operate by consensus; formal votes are relatively rare. Few key players will want to see the new president elected by a divided board. But of course the formal voting power of individual Bank members and the voting rules will shape even a decision ultimately taken by consensus, and so it’s worth reviewing the somewhat byzantine World Bank voting mechanics:

–Each country that belongs to the Bank possesses a certain number of voting shares, and electing the Bank president requires a simple majority of the votes cast. The United States is the largest shareholder, with nearly 16 percent. This share is enough to block Board action on some matters (changing the Bank’s articles or bylaws, for example), which require an 85 percent supermajority. Oddly enough, electing the Bank president does not require supermajority support. This is important; it has sometimes been assumed that the United States has the ability, on its own, to veto any candidate. As a question of practical politics it may have that power, but not as a formal matter.

–Voting share is based on the shares a given country holds, which is in turn based (loosely) on economic size. Taken together, the United States and the executive directors from European Union countries have a combined voting share that is almost exactly fifty percent. If the European board members all honor the "gentlemen’s agreement" that has given the World Bank presidency to the United States and the the top IMF post to Europe, the election may be all but over. No other regional bloc can muster that kind of voting power; all African directors together, for example, account for less than six percent of voting share.  

–Votes are cast by the executive directors. Major players–the United States, Japan, Germany, France, China, the United Kingdom, Russia and Saudi Arabia–have their own executive directors, but most countries form country groupings that "share" a director. The executive director from Austria, for example, represents Austria, Belarus, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo, Luxembourg, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Turkey. When he casts his vote, he votes the collected voting share of those countries, and there is no provision for splitting up that share. 

This complicated structure generates several questions:

–Will the executive directors from EU countries line up behind the same candidate, or will they split? For the most part, the EU countries attempt to coordinate their policies at the World Bank and IMF (and here there is the added incentive of protecting European privilege at the IMF), but bloc voting is not a given. And it’s worth noting that several EU executive directors include in their groups non-EU countries, which may complicate their decision. The Austrian director, for example, will have to at least think about what Turkey wants. 

–Will the emerging countries and the developing world split their support between Ocampo and Okonjo-Iweala? A key question will be whether the BRICS attempt to pool their voting power. They have occasionally attempted to present a unified front on global governance issues, but it’s not clear that they will be able to do so here.

–Will a straw poll lead to the exit of either Okonjo-Iweala or Ocampo (likely the latter) and allow for support to consolidate behind one non-American candidate?

–Does Ocampo have broad support among Latin American countries? Unlike Okonjo-Iweala, who received the endorsement of the African Union, Ocampo has not received the formal backing of a regional organization, and it’s not clear that all major players in the region support his candidacy.