Hopes that a woman would get the top job at the UN are now beginning to fade
Published 03/09/2016 | 02:30
Hopes that a woman might next lead the United Nations have been dealt a blow as the opaque process to elect a new secretary-general enters its final stages. Last month, incumbent Ban Ki-moon said it was "high time" for a woman take the helm of the UN for the first time since its foundation more than 70 years ago. His words heartened campaigners, including a group of 56 nations, that have been pushing for the next secretary-general to make history in this way.
"We have many distinguished and eminent women leaders in national governments or other organisations or even business communities, political communities and cultural and every aspect of our life," Ban said, adding: "There's no reason why not in the United Nations."
Many hoped a women would be selected in 2006 when Ban, then a South Korean diplomat, was chosen. As the race for the next secretary-general heated up earlier this year, initial signs suggested that it might happen this time, after eight men have held the position.
High-calibre candidates, including the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who is now head of the UN development agency, Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco, the UN education and cultural organisation, and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, held the promise of a tight race that could very well bring a woman to the job.
The decision on who gets what many might consider to be the toughest job in the world is made by the UN's 15-member Security Council, which must recommend a candidate to the 193-member general assembly for its approval.
A series of straw polls by secret ballot, the third of which was held on Monday, narrows the field. Security Council members vote on whether to encourage, discourage or not express a view on a candidate.
In Monday's ballot, Portugal's former prime minister, Antonio Guterres, no stranger to the architecture of the UN, given that he served as the UN high commissioner for refugees for a decade, emerged in the lead, with 11 members voting to 'encourage' him.
Irina Bokova was the highest polled among the five women candidates and the third favourite overall, although five member states voted to "discourage" her.
Some expect Helen Clark to withdraw after polling seventh place in this third ballot, with eight "discourages".
To be in with a chance, a candidate must have at least nine positive votes, with no veto from any of the five permanent members of the Security Council. That rules out Christiana Figueres, who came 10th out of 10 candidates in Monday's vote. A fourth straw poll is due to take place in September, with the expectation that some consensus might then be clear around a particular candidate by October.
By tradition, the world's top diplomatic post has rotated - unofficially - among regions of the world. Officials from Asia, Africa, Latin America and western Europe have all served as the UN secretary-general.
Eastern European member states, including Russia, have argued that it is their turn this time. Because of this, Bokova, who is Bulgarian, was considered an early frontrunner but she is still trailing in the third poll, partly, some believe, because a number of member states think she is too close to Russia.
The argument that it is time for a secretary-general from eastern Europe is also playing in favour of Miroslav Lujcak, foreign minister of Slovakia, who surged unexpectedly to reach second place to Guterres.
Russia and the four other permanent council members - the US, UK, France and China - all have the power to veto a candidacy. Many believe Lujcak may be the compromise candidate that all five could agree on as Moscow is known not to be keen on Guterres. If the Security Council fails to reach consensus ahead of the deadline of late October, it could plunge the council into another crisis at a time when Ban is due to step down at the end of the year.
With Guterres' place in the lead considered shaky, there is still the possibility that one of the remaining women candidates could rise, particularly if some candidates drop out of the race. The horse-trading will continue in the corridors of UN headquarters in New York in the coming weeks as diplomats weigh national interests and geopolitical dynamics, while assessing who might be best for what was once described as the most impossible job in the world.