Upstart in UN Secretary-General Race Faces Security Council Vote

  • Colored ballots to signal support among veto-wielding nations
  • Bulgaria’s Georgieva would be first female secretary-general

After nine months of cocktail-party campaigning, interviews over the internet and East-versus-West politicking, a defining vote in the race to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general takes place Wednesday in the United Nations Security Council chambers.

Supporters of ex-Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres -- who has led through five rounds of straw polls -- will be looking to limit defections to Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, a European Commission vice president nominated by her government last week after another candidate struggled. At stake is oversight of a 71-year-old institution with 105,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world and an annual budget of more than $13 billion.

In a year in which the UN explicitly sought female candidates, Georgieva’s entry could garner crucial support from Russia, which has said publicly it would prefer a candidate from Eastern Europe. Previous UN chiefs have come from Norway, Sweden, Myanmar, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea.

“We do believe that it is the turn of Eastern Europe to provide the next secretary-general,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN and president of the Security Council. “We would very much like to see a woman.”

Color-Coded Ballots

While still unofficial, Wednesday’s vote will be the first to use color-coded ballots that will show publicly whether a candidate has the support of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council. A negative vote from one of the five isn’t a death knell -- Kofi Annan faced one in his successful 1996 race -- but it’s a big hurdle to overcome.

The 63-year-old Georgieva, who holds a Ph.D. in economics and was once a vice president at the World Bank, said she has the experience to help solve seemingly intractable issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis and internal UN reforms.

“I can get things done,” Georgieva said during a two-hour question-and-answer session at the General Assembly on Oct. 3. “Whether it is on management or integrating different sectors, I have led successively reforms that have made organizations more vibrant.”

Although Guterres, who ran the UN’s refugee agency for a decade, has previously won the support of 80 percent of Security Council members, he faces challenges of geography and gender.

‘Symbolic Value’

“I cannot change what I am,” Guterres said in a Sept. 21 interview with Bloomberg News, before Georgieva entered the race. “If the decision is that the symbolic value of having a woman is what matters, then choose another person.”

Guterres presented himself during the campaign as “an honest broker” who will come down hard on UN peacekeepers accused of rape. He said that fixing the organization requires the protection of whistle-blowers who expose sexual misconduct, corruption and other illegal activity.

The 15 members of the Security Council are expected to pass their endorsement this month to the General Assembly, which takes a symbolic vote on the decision. While the process to date has been unprecedented in terms of transparency, it’s now reached the endgame, Russia’s Churkin said.

‘Constructive Fatigue’

“I do sense this feeling of constructive fatigue among members of the Security Council,” Churkin said, adding that he would move to schedule a binding vote soon.

Georgieva entered the race after the Bulgarian government switched its support from her compatriot Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Bokova has fared poorly in five informal straw polls but has refused to withdraw.

The late entry could still backfire. Last week, the ambassador for Ukraine -- which has a rotating spot on the Security Council through 2017 -- told reporters he wasn’t pleased with Georgieva’s entry.

“She is too late,” said Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, who has clashed with Russia at the UN over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Eastern Ukraine. “The way it is done is not fully correct.”

Wednesday’s vote will determine if the rest of the Security Council agrees.

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