Race Heats Up for Top Job at the U.N.

Daily News Article   —   Posted on February 3, 2006

(by Benny Avni, NYSun.com) UNITED NATIONS – As Secretary-General Annan enters his final year in the top spot at the United Nations, the race for his seat is so hot that there is a Web log dedicated exclusively to covering it. Another Web site just promotes female candidates, and gamblers can find betting odds for the race online.

U.N. diplomats are cautious, saying the candidate list is far from complete, and indicating that the true secretary-general contenders will likely emerge at the last minute. Like most of the seven who have led Turtle Bay in the past, the next one will also likely be a compromise candidate, who is not necessarily the best or the strongest, diplomats say.

The selection process is based more on tradition than on an explicit set of rules. Quietly lobbying member states and trying to win favors among regional voting blocs is just the beginning. The decision ultimately lies with the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, where a winning candidate must secure at least nine votes, and – most important – assure that none of the veto-yielding superpowers object.

Tradition also excludes candidates from the council superpowers, and dictates some regional rotation. Many therefore believe it is now Asia’s turn to take the helm at the world body, and discount the possibility that big names such as President Clinton or Prime Minister Blair will take the job on. While not excluding an Asian candidate, American and British U.N. ambassadors have said publicly they reject the regional rotation system. China’s and Japan’s ambassadors, however, have expressed their determination to field an Asian candidate, although the Asia group has not yet united behind one.

No secretary-general has ever hailed from Eastern Europe, and countries in the region are mounting a campaign to put forth one of their own, over Russian objection. North America has never bred a secretary-general either, but other than speculations about Mr. Clinton no serious Americans, Canadians, or Mexicans have thrown their hats into the ring.

There has yet to be a female secretary-general, and several well-qualified women have been promoted in Turtle Bay’s halls.

Lobbying for the seat could be tricky, and many believe a low-profile campaign has the best chance for success. A race among noncandidates is much more difficult to handicap than other political campaigns, however.

“At the United Nations, this process has not been open, I would even say it has been lacking in transparency,” the front-runner among the women candidates, Lettish leader Vaira Vike-Freiberga told Latvian television this week. “It is not the kind of situation in which you have an office to run for.”

When The New York Sun on Monday mentioned the head of the U.N. Development Program, Kemal Dervis, as a candidate with an outside shot to win the secretariat post, his spokesman, William Orme, quickly called to deny that the Turkish national is running. This could mean that Mr. Dervis indeed is not a candidate – or that he believes omitting his name from early lists could help a stealthy campaign.

Several diplomats, who asked not to be named, told the Sun that one candidate who could win has been left off all previous lists: Norwegian diplomat Terje Roed-Larsen, who currently represents the secretary-general in Lebanon, and whose extensive experience in Middle East diplomacy positions him as a serious player in a world hotspot that will most likely be on top of the U.N. agenda for the next decade.

Another candidate who has a good chance to bridge the West-Middle East gap, and who has successfully kept a low profile, is Jordan’s U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Hussein, a young bright diplomat who has fans in the Arab world as well as in America, Europe – and even Israel.

When three oft-mentioned front-runners appeared on a panel in the self-declared world-leaders’ summit in Davos, Switzerland, last week, the press questioned them about their aspirations to lead the United Nations. None of the three – South Korea’s foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, a Sri Lankan diplomat, Jayantha Dhanapala, or Ms. Vike-Freiberga – denied those aspirations, but nor did any of the three confirm them, talking instead of areas in which Turtle Bay needs reform.

In addition to featuring links such as the audio stream of that exchange in Davos, the Web site unsg.org details the latest news clippings on candidates, provides assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, and lists their supporters and detractors. It also has a permanent to sportsbook.com, where the odds list of secretariat candidates is led by a tie between Mr. Clinton and the earliest name thrown into the ring, Thailand’s foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai, who – perhaps uniquely – has announced his candidacy officially.

Both Messrs. Clinton and Sathirathai are sold currently at 5-2, but some of the names immediately below them are not even mentioned in U.N. corridors. And although the elected Burmese prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, has won the Nobel Peace Prize and is admired by freedom lovers worldwide, few Turtle Bay diplomats would take a bet on her, in fifth place at 12-1 odds. She is currently serving time as prisoner of conscience in Burma.

It’s possible, even probable according to some, that none of the people mentioned thus far will become secretary-general on January 1, 2007. Turtle Bay habitues assume the more popular a candidate is at this stage, the more doomed his or her chances are to win.

“Most front-runners bite the dust early in the process,” a U.N. historian, Stephen Schlesinger, said. The five permanent members of the Security Council – America, China, Russia, France, and Britain – “like to create the impression that they create the candidate,” he said, therefore not allowing any real runners to shine.

Even under normal circumstances the winner can be a compromise candidate who represents the lowest common denominator the major powers can agree on. “It all comes down to those five veto states making their own deals,” Mr. Schlesinger said. Often they end up agreeing on “the least offensive” candidate, he added, and “you are not getting always the best talent.”

The current selection process might complicate the process further, resulting in even more compromises, due to a growing gap between the superpowers, as represented by the five permanent members, and a majority voting bloc of member states known as the Group of 77. “There could very well be a situation in which the P-5 united behind a candidate, and then the G-77 reject him,” one Turtle Bay official who has his ears close to the ground but asked not to be identified, said.

America’s U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, has attempted to speed up the selection process by announcing he would like it to be concluded by July to allow for a “kind of transition period,” breaking with the tradition of allowing the final decision to be made in the last month, and sometimes the last days, of the sitting secretary-general’s five-year tenure. The American sense of urgency, coupled with intense outside scrutiny of the United Nations, has already created an earlier buzz for candidates than at any time in past.

Other wild cards that might affect the process are the press cycle and blogs. As the man behind unsg.org, Tony Fleming, put it, “I publish a blog dedicated to a process that until now has been done behind closed doors.”

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.