UNITED NATIONS – The chatter these days in the halls of the labyrinthine United Nations complex almost resembles a contested U.S. political convention. Only the names and nationalities are different.
For the first time since the U.N. was founded in 1945, the 193 member states will choose a new secretary-general in a relatively open and apparently transparent election.
And for the first time, a woman could win.
Voting, usually a secretive process of geopolitical deal-making, starts later this year, and the new term starts Jan. 1. Those vying for the post include at least four women, as well as candidates from some of the planet’s tiniest countries, like little Montenegro (population: 650,000).
Formally, nine candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, and a few more are expected in the coming days. Speculation is rampant that someone of the stature of, say, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, could be recruited.
The candidates are making the rounds of hearings, submitting their resumes and traveling to high-profile U.N. events the world over. Campaigning can be risky, though, for a position whose job description could be “world’s ultimate diplomat.”
Aspirants have to be careful not to voice views that could come back to haunt them. For example, advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights, a favored U.N. cause, could doom a candidate in some African or Asian countries where homosexuality is still illegal. “It’s a different world,” Igor Luksic, the 39-year-old foreign minister of Montenegro, said at a public forum for candidates last month.
“I really believe the U.N. needs something new. Not only faces; new approaches,” he added, acknowledging that his youth made him a long shot. “There’s been some detachment between the U.N. and the people. We need to fight to make the U.N. relevant.”
How much change is real and how much is cosmetic in the election process is still unclear. Some experts say the top dogs at the world body – the United States and Russia – ultimately will make the decision.
But for now, there is an air of jockeying and campaigning rarely seen at the august institution. “With the existential threats humanity is facing, there is recognition in the bureaucratic hallways that we need leadership … that is inspirational … and that the system as usual will not deliver,” said Ricken Patel, head of Avaaz, one of several activist organizations demanding a more open election as part of a grass-roots movement called 1 for 7 Billion.
“This is a quiet, gentle, collaborative revolution in how the U.N works. … This is a tremendous step forward,” Patel said.
Many U.N. veterans believe that, like a nominee to the Supreme Court, or the selection of a new pope, choosing a secretary-general should be a decorous process conducted out of the glare of public scrutiny. “Overexposure may burn them,” said Alvaro de Soto, a former senior U.N. official who worked closely with Javier Perez de Cuellar, a Peruvian diplomat who served as secretary-general from 1982 to 1991. “Like cultivating a rare species of orchid – too much light and it wilts.”
Campaigning can be dangerously compromising to the patina of impartiality, De Soto added. “Showing too much eagerness should be an eliminating factor,” he said, speaking by telephone from Paris, where he is teaching.
But activists say knowing a person’s philosophy does not necessarily undermine his or her fairness – and can help.
Plus, given the U.N.’s widely criticized response to scandals such as sex abuse by some U.N. peacekeeping troops and its struggle to respond to the mass movement of refugees in the Middle East and Europe, a new kind of voice – especially that of a woman – is in order, they say.
“I don’t know that transparency will beget a woman candidate,” said Rachel Vogelstein, director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But the importance of having a woman at the helm … is that it sends a critical signal.”
Tradition, but no actual rule, says the position of secretary-general rotates to different regions of the world. Two Asians, two Africans or Middle Easterners, one Latin American and three West Europeans have held the post so far. This has led to a movement among East Europeans who think it should be their turn, even though Eastern Europe no longer is technically a separate region from Western Europe.
Hence, of the nine formally declared candidates, seven are from Eastern Europe, and five of those from the former Yugoslavia. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who is head of UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural organization, is said to be an early front-runner, thanks to backing from Russia.
Another Bulgarian, Kristalina Georgieva, a European Union commissioner, is said to have the backing of the United States, although she had not yet declared.
The scuttlebutt at the U.N. is that none of the East Europeans has been especially impressive.
It could happen that the rotation would skip ahead to Latin America, in which case Washington is said to be favoring Susana Malcorra, the Argentine foreign minister who until recently was chief of staff for current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. She has not entered the race formally.
Among those who have declared, Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, and Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and former U.N. high commissioner for refugees, receive high marks from fellow diplomats.
Among the undeclared, some of the potential postulants generating buzz include Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Christiana Figueres, a veteran Costa Rican diplomat credited with a major role in executing the landmark Paris climate-change accord.
In the past, the five permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council – the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France – agreed on a candidate and gave the name to the General Assembly, which always rubber-stamped the choice.
Despite the pressure for more democracy, there is nothing to stop that process from being repeated this year. As one senior U.N. official put it, the Permanent Five don’t want to leave much to chance.