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Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres Leads Race to Be Next U.N. Secretary-General

Hopes for a woman at the U.N. helm dampened as front-runners Helen Clark and Susana Malcorra slip to the middle of the pack.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres attends a press conference following the UNHCRs annual Executive Committee meeting on October 3, 2014 at the United Nations Office at Geneva.  AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres attends a press conference following the UNHCRs annual Executive Committee meeting on October 3, 2014 at the United Nations Office at Geneva. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who served as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years, has emerged as the front-runner in the campaign to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the U.N.’s ninth secretary-general.

The outcome of the contest for the world’s top U.N. job dealt a blow to the candidacies of other prominent hopefuls, including Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, who finished in eighth place in the straw poll, and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who finished in sixth. After the ballot was cast, New Zealand’s U.N. ambassador emerged from the Security Council chamber looking deeply distressed and declined to take questions from the press.

The straw poll gave a boost to the campaigns of sleeper candidates like Danilo Turk, a former Slovenian president and U.N. veteran, who finished closely behind Guterres, as well as Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian national and director-general of UNESCO, who finished third. But it also dampened hopes among many delegates that a woman might lead the United Nations for the first time in its history. There was only one woman among the top five contenders.

After the polling was concluded, Portugal’s Foreign Minister Augusto Santo Silva welcomed the outcome, telling reporters it provides “clear incentive to Mr. Guterres’ candidature and confirms that he is particularly qualified for the position of Secretary General.” Turk told Foreign Policy by email that he was “very encouraged — and gratified” by the result. “I see a reason to hope that an understanding in the U.N. can be built in this era of uncertainty and tension,” he wrote. “But there is still a way to go.”

The secrecy surrounding the vote — the Security Council did not release the results of the straw poll — infuriated U.N. envoys who had been pressing for greater openness in the process of selecting the secretary-general. Following the vote, the Security Council president, Koro Bessho of Japan, informed the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, as well as the press, that the straw poll had been conducted. But he provided no information to either on the results.  Lykketoft — who was hosted a series of unprecedented public meetings in the General Assembly with the candidates — sharply criticized the Security Council’s discretion.

“In my view, limiting the communication to the fact that the informal straw poll has taken place without any further detail adds little value and does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency,” he wrote.

Thursday’s vote was designed to narrow the slate of 12 candidates vying for the top U.N. job, and provide council members with some clarity on which aspirants stood a chance of securing sufficient support to continue. Guterres came out on top with 12 delegates encouraging him to pursue the top job, three expressing no opinion, and none discouraging him to go for it. Turk was close behind with 11 votes of encouragement. But two delegations discouraged him and two expressed no opinion. If any of those “discourage” votes were cast by permanent members that could spell danger for his campaign.

Bokova, who was seen as flagging in the race, recovered ground by securing nine votes in favor, continuing her bid. But she received four votes of discouragement, raising the risk that she may be opposed by a permanent member of the council. Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister, and Serjm Kerim, a former U.N. General Assembly President, also performed better than expected, each gaining nine votes in favor of their candidacies. But they each received five votes of discouragement.

Still, Jeremic pledged to soldier on. “I’m please with the result, as it definitely brings me to the second round,” Jeremic told FP by email. “This is a success for all of those who will proceed. This race is not a sprint, but a marathon. Lots of work in the weeks ahead…”

The initial sounding by the Security Council proved particularly discouraging to two of the U.N.’s best-known candidates, Helen Clark, who currently serves as the executive director of the U.N. Development Program, and Susana Malcorra, who served for nearly a decade as a top U.N. official, including more than four years as Ban’s chief of staff. Clark obtained only eight votes of encouragement, and five delegations discouraged her from running. Malcorra, who is widely viewed as the United States’ favorite, received only seven votes in favor of her candidacy.

But Malcorra took to Twitter late Thursday vowing to pursue her bid for the top U.N. job, thanking council members that supported her candidacy. “This support has made me even more committed to continue working with my team and with all states members in pursuit of this candidacy,” she Tweeted. Clark also pledged to press ahead, writing on Twitter that she was “thankful for the support shown in first straw poll of NextSG candidates. Look forward to continuing #Helen4SG conversations.”

The contest dealt the harshest blows to the candidates with the least U.N. experience, including Croatia’s former Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, former Montenegrin Prime Minister Igor Luksic and former Moldovan foreign minister Natalia Gherman, who finished at the bottom. Christiana Figueres, a veteran Costa Rican diplomat who headed U.N. climate negotiations, also finished near the bottom of the pack, with five states encouraging her candidacy, five discouraging it, and five expressing no opinion.

Diplomats attributed Guterres’s strong showing to his extensive U.N. experience and an effective performance in a series of U.N. debates. A natural communicator with a deep grasp of U.N. affairs, Guterres has emerged as a clear favorite among the U.N.’s rank-and-file.

“Guterres is the man to beat,” said one council diplomat.

But his path to the top U.N. job is anything but assured. While Russia did not vote to discourage Guterres’s candidacy, Moscow has made clear that it would prefer the job went to an Eastern European candidate. Traditionally, U.N. secretaries-general have been elected on the basis of rotation among the U.N.’s main regional groups. Russia, as well as many other countries, believe that it is Eastern Europe’s turn. Following today’s vote, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, appeared visibly agitated as he exited the Security Council chamber, dismissing request for comment.

Photo Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images


Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch