UN Secretary-General election: Claims of dirty tricks and backstabbing mar search for Ban Ki-moon's successor

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel have become involved in the realpolitik, and the support of Barack Obama is much sought. Also trying to influence the outcome is Hungary’s hard-right leader Viktor Orban and some British Conservative politicians

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Friday 23 September 2016 08:57
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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looks on during the United Nations General Assembly General Debate
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looks on during the United Nations General Assembly General Debate

It is one of the most prestigious jobs in the world and the process of appointing the next holder was supposed to usher in transparency, tearing away the much criticised secrecy and hidden deal-making which has characterised it in the past.

But the race to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations has, instead, become enmeshed in accusations of dirty tricks and backstabbing, political enmity, regional rivalry and personal attacks.

The inevitable analogies with Game of Thrones and House of Cards may seem incongruous in choosing the successor to Ban Ki-moon, the overwhelming feature of whose two terms have been blandness, but that is what on the lips of diplomats with passions running surprisingly high.

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel have become involved in the realpolitik, and the support of Barack Obama is much sought. Also trying to influence the outcome is Hungary’s hard-right leader Viktor Orban and some British Conservative politicians.

With world leaders gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly, the question of who becomes the new Secretary-General has been an important point of discussions on the sidelines and an opportunity for lobbying.

According to the rules the successful candidate is chosen by the General Assembly of 193 member states with the 15-strong Security Council effectively drawing up the shortlist. But, in reality, no one gets in without the agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The drama may be about candidates few among the public know about. But in these turbulent times of Isis and terrorism, the refugee crisis, the EU under great strain, a resurgent Russia, confrontations in the South China Sea and a possible Trump presidency, power blocs want their own man or woman to be in the seat.

The chances are that it may be well be a woman with a consensus that this is so among many of the countries. Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for refugees has established a lead over his rivals in straw polls, but the gender factor will count against him. This will also be the case with Vuk Jeremic and Miroslav Lajcak, the Serbian and Slovakian foreign ministers, who came third and second, respectively, in the polls.

Mr Jeremic and Mr Lajcak are, however, from Eastern Europe, and there is a feeling that the post should go to someone from that region. The two in the running who tick both the boxes on gender and region are Irina Bokova, the Unesco director-general, and Kristalina Georgieva, the vice-president of the European Commission. Of the three other female candidates, Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican UN official who played an important role in the climate change talks, and was said to be favoured by President Obama, has already dropped out after doing badly in the straw polls. Susan Malcorra, the Argentine foreign minister, and Helen Clark, the New Zealand Prime Minister, have also fared badly coming sixth and seventh. In any event, Britain would not favour someone from Buenos Aires getting the post with the Falklands still a contentious issue.

It is in the competition between Ms Bokova and Ms Georgieva, both Bulgarian, that there has been the most intrigue and recriminations. Ms Bokova, who has been widely praised for her campaign against cultural destruction carried out by Islamists in Syria, Iraq and Mali, has scored the highest in the straw polls among female candidates.

Ms Bokova has, however, been a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party in the past and before that the Communist Party during Warsaw Pact times, albeit a reformer. The European conservatives would prefer Georgieva: she is favoured by the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP) group in the EU which has also been lobbying against Mr Guterres because he is a socialist.

Reports began to surface that Angela Merkel – whose Christian Democrats are part of the EPP – had obtained the support of Vladimir Putin for Ms Georgiva during the G20 meeting in Hangzhou. The Kremlin reacted furiously to the claim. It said that the German Chancellor had, indeed, made such an approach but has been told in no uncertain terms that it was an unacceptable proposition. Berlin, the Russians charged, was trying to pressure the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boko Borissov to switch his country’s candidates from Ms Bokova to Ms Gerogiva.

The Russian annoyance, according to senior diplomatic sources, was partly because Germany, not a permanent member of the Security Council, was deemed to have been too forward, Ms Merkel thinking she was as important in the world stage as she is in Europe. This was also the view of the French, who can hold themselves to be in a superior position to the Germans at least when it comes to the UN.

The German foreign minister refuted Moscow’s claim of lobbying by Ms Merkel, saying this was Russian propaganda and that Germany was not pushing for Ms Georgiva. In the world of diplomatic double-speak, it is felt there was an ulterior motive behind Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s very public statement. As a Social Democrat in Ms Merkel’s coalition he was ensuring that a right-winger did not get Berlin’s official support for the job.

Meanwhile Mr Borissov, faced with hostility from Moscow and Paris, shelved, for the time being, any plans of a candidate swap. But there then followed a highly publicised episode in which he appeared at a press conference with Viktor Orban during which the Hungarian leader gave vocal backing for Georgieva Orban, who has taken a conspicuously hard line against Muslim refugees and was among the first to build walls at his country’s borders, is said to be anxious that Eastern Europe’s candidate should be adequately right wing.

There is a British dimension to this. Ms Bokova has been recently coming under public attack across the Channel. Andrew Mitchell, the former Tory chief whip, declared in a newspaper article that Ms Bokova’s election “would be a catastrophe”, claiming she has been a “disaster” at Unesco, without actually giving any examples of her supposedly disastrous acts.

Mr Mitchell, who had to resign his post after rowing with police officers in Downing Street, concluded: “If Ms Bokova receives so few votes she drops out, a new candidate should be put forward. Easily the best would be another Bulgarian, Kristalina Georgieva.”

Ms Bokova acknowledges there was a critical assessment by the Department for International Development in 2011 of Unesco just after she had taken over. But the British Government’s own update two years later highlighted the significant improvements “in work planning, budget, HR policies, transparency and cost control which have strengthened organisations effectiveness”. Two of Unesco’s biggest donors, Norway and Sweden, have praised her leadership. Many, like a former Irish minister for European affairs, maintained that Ms Bokova was has been subjected to a campaign which “seems to be part of a crude effort to strong-arm Bulgaria to replace Bokova with Gerogiva for the top UN job”.

There is little doubt that the claims and counter-claims will continue. The next straw poll is on 26 September. Knives are being sharpened again, say diplomats, for the aftermath and the final lap of this bitterly fought race.

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