Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, has emerged as frontrunner in a straw poll to choose the next UN Secretary General. But was it a “discourage” vote, a tactical offer to negotiate, a “No way, Jose” or a flat-out veto?
Such are the cryptic signals sent by diplomats on the Security Council and by other UN members, which the rest of the world is now trying to decipher.
The South Korean ended up leading the pack with fewer votes than he earned in the last straw vote. One delegate who once supported Ban has now lost interest and effectively abstained, while another voted to “discourage” his candidacy. But none of the other candidates could muster enough support to match his thirteen “encouragements.”
But was that discouragement a veto or was it a ploy, as member states exacted promises from Ban about positions their nationals would fill? Or were delegates playing for time in the hope that Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, battered by a coup at home and a poor straw vote showing, would pull out? Would that clear the way for another candidate from ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations), where Singapore, always productive of potential candidates, has two or three in hand?
And when it comes to a public vote, would the delegate who slipped a dagger in the dark into the back of a candidate be prepared to do the same in public?
If this sounds like a papal election with a Medici candidate, it’s really not. In fact, this election campaign is possibly the most transparent in the UN’s history. But while the campaign itself is transparent, the election is as murkily duplicitous as ever.
Every five or ten years, the world is amazed at the opacity of the process for choosing the UN Secretary General. According to the Charter, the Security Council, currently fifteen members strong, recommends a candidate to the General Assembly, which could technically reject the recommendation.
To complicate matters, after the anonymous straw polls, when the Security Council publicly votes and comes to a formal adoption, a candidate could win with only nine votes (or lose with fourteen) if the one holdout is a permanent member and votes against the frontrunner–as happened in 1996, when US Ambassador Madeleine Albright vetoed Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
In the heady aftermath of the cold war, impending Secretary General elections have concentrated minds, bringing regular calls for making the process more transparent and democratic. Each election has effectively ignored those calls, and the world has immediately forgotten the fuss, heaving a sigh of relief once the drawn-out process ends.
This time, with plenty of notice, there were calls for the Security Council to nominate two or more candidates so the General Assembly could decide. Confident that the Assembly would not be able to get its act together and reject a Security Council candidate, the Council members tacitly ignored the idea.
So there is no provision in the Charter for the Secretary Generalship to rotate around the regions of the world (indeed, the first two both came from Scandinavia). But there is now a consensus that geographic proportionality is important. The United States and Britain both repudiate that principle but bow to its application, not least since China has made it plain this time around that it would veto any non-Asian candidate.