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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

Candidates vie for top U.N. job


It’s been called a papal conclave without the smoke.

The jockeying for the selection of a new U.N. secretary-general is on. Candidates that have been in the running for months -- Ban Ki Moon, South Korea’s foreign minister; Jayantha Dhanapala, senior adviser to the president of Sri Lanka; India’s Shashi Tharoor, U.N. under-secretary-general for public information, Thailand’s deputy prime minister Surakieart Sathirathai, and, most recently, Prince Zeid Raad Zeid Al-Hussein, Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations -- have been joined by others. Just this week Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga announced her candidacy and Afghanistan said it would field former finance minister Ashraf Ghani as a candidate. An unconfirmed candidate from Pakistan also surfaced.

“It seems clear that it’s going to go to an Asian, but suddenly in the last few days the race has become much more fluid,” said Max Stamper, publisher of, an independent news network covering the United Nations. “At least three new candidates have emerged publicly -- [representing] Pakistan, Afghanistan and Latvia. Also privately I have been told that there has been encouragement of at least one new candidate from Asia.”

With Kofi Annan retiring at the end of 2006, at press time two straw polls had already been held in the 15-member U.N. Security Council to encourage -- and discourage -- candidates who might succeed him. In the last one, South Korea’s Ban Ki Moon picked up 14 positive votes and one vote to discourage. Shashi Tharoor came in second and Thailand’s Surakieart also received the necessary nine favorable votes. Prince Zeid of Jordan received only six votes to encourage, to many people’s surprise.

“Prince Zeid is very popular at the United Nations. He’s worked on the International Criminal Court and distinguished himself there,” Stamper said.

But excellence is only one of the criteria used in electing a new U.N. secretary-general and not necessarily the most important. Jim Traub, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American Power told the BBC that the successful candidate for secretary-general is not usually the most capable or well-qualified individual but the person who is least offensive to the greatest number of countries.

“It’s the least common denominator candidate,” Traub said.

While objecting to the term “lowest-common denominator,” Stamper did not in essence disagree.

“It’s the least objectionable candidate,” Stamper said.

So far, the only thing that can be said for sure is that Washington and China are the kingmakers in this election and that the election is likely to go to an Asian. An Asian hasn’t held the post of secretary-general for nearly 40 years, and it’s widely regarded at the United Nations that it’s Asia’s turn.

As the largest Asian country, China is possessive about who is selected to represent Asia. Moreover, China has been increasing its global foreign policy initiatives and has emerged as a potent new player at the United Nations.

You can see it in the U.N. corridors, Stamper said. “When an ambassador travels from one meeting to another, there’s always an entourage. The Chinese entourage seems twice as big as any other,” he said.

Observers say the politics and politicking behind the selection of any new secretary-general are intense. Many of the candidates have been making the rounds of foreign capitals trying to drum up support for their election; some even have their own Web sites.

“It’s a very intense game. You can’t just sit back on your porch and wait for somebody to approach you. You have to go out there and grab it,” said Stephen Schlesinger, a professor at The New School’s World Policy Institute in New York and author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.

According to Schlesinger, the bottom line of this particular election is U.N. reform. “The reform process reached its peak in the summer of 2005, when Kofi Annan presented a huge reform package to the U.N. Much of it was dissipated in arguments at the last moment. The real thing is if a new secretary-general can pick up on the items that were not passed in the fall of 2005,” Schlesinger said.

Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of the United Nations Association, an organization in the United States that supports the world body, said growing polarization among member states at the United Nations could conceivably have an effect on the election of a new secretary-general. While there is no precedent for the General Assembly rejecting a candidate put forward by the Security Council, neither is it an impossibility.

“Some of the major powers in the [Group of] 77 feel they do not have a voice at the United Nations commensurate with their power. This can be traced to their failed effort to bring reform to the Security Council and gain membership. I’m talking about countries like India and South Africa and Brazil, clearly growing powers on the world stage.”

The reform agenda spearheaded by Western powers in the wake of the Oil for Food scandal has met with opposition from many of these countries in the General Assembly. They have control over the budget and fear that the proposed reforms could end up depriving them of power.

“They see any move to reform the United Nations, especially those reforms being put forward by the United States and other Western powers, as being aimed at diminishing whatever say these other countries have at the United Nations. They see this as being an effort to make the United Nations more like an American corporation and that is problematic for them,” DiMaggio said.

For any candidate, balancing the demands of the Security Council members, especially the five permanent members, with those of the members of the General Assembly is a tricky act.

“You never think of the United Nations as a place where the secretary-generals mount political campaigns but that’s in fact what they do. They are politicians. They have to figure out how to get this constituency without alienating others,” Schlesinger said. “The one who is the most talented in the campaign is the one who in the end is going to be chosen.”

Right now, Ban Ki Moon of South Korea appears the front-runner, which is attributed to South Korea having good relations with both China and the United States. But Japan will assume the presidency of the Security Council in October, when another straw poll is scheduled for Oct. 2, this one with colored ballots to distinguish the five permanent members from the other members of the Security Council, and Japan is assumed to have objections to a South Korean becoming secretary-general. There are long-standing historical grievances between the two countries dating back to World War II and a regional rivalry for power. Some think that the Taiwan lobby in Washington may be concerned that a South Korean secretary-general might be too pro-Beijing.

DiMaggio noted that Ban Ki Moon and South Korea have approached the election very professionally.

“Mr. Ban has made an effort not to say anything that offends any of the major powers. He’s also put a lot of emphasis on improving the management side of the United Nations, which is a major priority for the United States. So that has played well here in Washington and New York. He’s run a very good campaign.”

Historically, however, the Security Council doesn’t make up its mind right away. Kofi Annan, for instance, was selected as secretary-general only two weeks before taking office after the United States had vetoed the re-election of Boutros Boutros-Ghali several times. More often that not, those initially favored early in the process have been rejected.

Already, it’s expected that because of the recent military coup, Thailand’s Surakieart will drop out of the race and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, will either switch their support to another existing candidate or put forward a new one. Two names from Singapore have surfaced as possible new candidates; one, Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States and a former ambassador to the United Nations, could be a formidable candidate if she enters the race. The United Nations has never had a female secretary-general and some believe that it is past time to elect one.

In the running argument over whether the selection of a U.N. secretary-general is more or less like that of papal conclave, voices can be heard on either side. Stamper asserts that the selection is more transparent than a conclave and less democratic than a presidential election. Others argue the reverse. At least at a conclave, there’s smoke.

While the selection process for a secretary-general is notoriously murky, it has been much less so this election, DiMaggio observed. This has been the most transparent election for a secretary-general in U.N. history, she said, with many of the candidates making public their positions and reaching out to nongovernmental organizations and civil society.

The power of the secretary-general rests on the moral authority he or she can command. The job is by all accounts something of a feat: The contender must be distinguished but not too distinguished. Independent but only up to a point. And France insists he (or she) must speak French.

“Ultimately, the permanent five are the major deciders as to who becomes secretary-general. They wield a lot of power at the United Nations. They don’t want to necessarily see a charismatic leader as secretary-general that will in effect diminish their own power,” DiMaggio said. “When Kofi Annan was named secretary-general, he was this soft-spoken civil servant who had served at the United Nations for his entire career. I don’t think they anticipated what a charismatic leader he would go on to be. I’m not sure if they would have elected him had they known. I think they might want somebody who’s a strong leader, but not somebody strong enough to stand up to them.”

Margot Patterson is an NCR writer and editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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