Hope that a woman will be the next U.N. secretary-general is fading

Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of UNDP, addresses Member States regarding her candidacy for U.N. Secretary-General. (UN Photo)

Unless an unexpected outsider emerges, the dream of electing the first woman this year to helm the United Nations is over.

In the third straw poll, the head of UNESCO Irina Bokova scored the highest among the women candidates with seven votes of encouragement, five discourage votes and three no opinion votes. The four remaining women did worse, with Natalia Gherman and Christiana Figueras coming in ninth and tenth in a field of 10 candidates.

A clear winner didn’t emerge from the poll, and it’s possible that the next secretary-general is not among the current crop of candidates. The leading candidate in the poll was Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who was given three discouragement votes. To win, a candidate must have at least nine positive votes with no veto from a permanent member of the Security Council. That means that the race is essentially over for Figueres and Gherman.

Results from the first three straw polls for U.N. Secretary General. Scores presented as: Encourage-Discourage-No Opinion Expressed.

Results from the first three straw polls for U.N. Secretary-General. Scores presented as: Encourage-Discourage-No Opinion Expressed.

The anonymous polls help narrow the field until a clear winner remains. Traditionally, the candidate chosen by the Security Council is ratified by the rest of the member nations of the General Assembly. The winner needs the stamp of approval from the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France, as all have the power to veto a candidate.

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China’s explicit support for an Asian candidate in 2006 helped propel current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea to victory. He took an early lead in the straw polls that year, trailed closely by Shashi Tharoor of India. By the fourth poll Ban solidified his support among the permanent members and the majority of the rest of the Security Council. The race 10 years ago featured fewer candidates than today and a much clearer picture at the top.

This time around, support for Guterres has slightly declined as Miroslav Lujcak, foreign minister for Slovakia, made major gains to reach second place. The unofficial regional rotation system might have helped Lujcak, because eastern Europe is considered to be next. Bokova was an early front-runner given the fact that she is from Bulgaria, but she is still well behind in the third poll.

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An effort to name a woman to the post failed in 2006 when Ban won. That failure fueled the desire for a woman to win this time around. Early signs indicated that the right set of circumstances were aligning to make it happen. The entry of former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres added some highly qualified candidates to the pool of women.

The weakness of support for Guterres at the top still leaves open the possibility that one of the women candidates could rise to the top. If a few people drop out of the race, it may shake things up enough to rally support behind the next secretary-general.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.