Possible shake-up in U.N. secretary-general race, with new female candidate in the mix

U.N. Secretary-General candidates Kristalina Georgiva and Irina Bokova.
Just when it looked like the chances of the first woman U.N. secretary-general were all but gone, a new candidate may join the race. Rumor has it that the Bulgarian government may pull its support from early front-runner Irina Bokova and nominate European Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva.

It comes on the heels of the fourth Security Council straw poll, in which former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres strengthened his place at the top and Bokova fell to seventh place. A major shake-up is possible if the Bulgarians make the change and under-performing candidates finally pull out. Reports indicate that Hungary, Poland, Latvia and other countries in the region would support Bulgaria’s move.

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Results from the first four straw polls for U.N. secretary-general. Scores presented as: Encourage-Discourage-No Opinion Expressed. (Humanosphere)

Months ago, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov threw his support behind Bokova, the current head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. There had been speculation at the time that it was a choice between Bokova and Georgieva, both seen as the best hope if a woman were to finally lead the U.N. But each country can nominate just one candidate, which shut out Georgieva.

Reports had indicated that Borisov was set to make the change at some point this week, but that is on hold for now. He said that support for Bokova will remain until the fifth straw poll on Sept. 26. If Bokova again performs poorly the Bulgarian government will discuss making a change.

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Bokova has not managed to distinguish herself among the 12 initial candidates. With only seven encourage votes in each of the last three polls, she falls short of the mandatory nine needed to win. There is also a good chance that one of the five discourage votes comes from a permanent member of the Security Council, blocking her candidacy.

British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft made clear that candidates below the nine-vote threshold should drop out after last Friday’s poll. That would mean seven of the remaining 10 candidates are out. If that happens and Bulgaria nominates Georgieva, she would face three others: Guterres, Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak and former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic remaining.

Somewhat surprising is the lead Guterres has built. There is an implied rotation for the position and it is Eastern Europe’s turn, which might be why Jeremic and Lajcak moved up in recent polls. But the fact that Guterres is saddled with two discourage votes after building a lead so quickly may indicate that a veto country is holding things up. That makes a potential Georgieva entrance all the more interesting.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent time at the recent G20 summit talking to leaders about a Georgieva candidacy. Emma Bonino of Italy and Neelie Kroes of the Netherlands, both former European commissioners, voiced support. With all the permanent Security Council members present, Merkel may have helped amass the support needed for Georgieva to win.

For Georgieva to win, she will have to overcome what some perceive to be a bias against women. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres are vying for the position. Despite their vast experience in their home countries and internationally, neither has done well in the straw polls.

Colombian Ambassador María Emma Mejía Vélez, who helped lead a coalition of 60 countries in the effort to elect a woman as secretary-general, expressed dismay in late August that the six women in the race got so little support.

Former New Mexico governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, wrote in the Washington Post last October: “With so many capable female candidates with great political, diplomatic and U.N. experience, there is just no excuse for the U.S. and the other members of the Security Council to once again neglect half of the planet when choosing our future U.N. 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.