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Deal-making and dirty tricks inside the race for UN secretary general

Hacked emails, bogus Twitter accounts, smear allegations and backroom deals. Welcome to the race for the international community’s top diplomatic job – United Nations secretary general.

The eventual winner of the contest will ascend to become a secular saint, an ambassador of peace and voice of the poor and downtrodden. But the road to such a lofty position is paved with landmines and booby traps.

On Monday, the UN security council will hold the fifth of a series of straw polls aimed at picking a winner from the remaining nine contenders in the race, in which the 15 council members will cast secret ballots.

The clear leader to date has been António Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister and UN high commissioner for refugees. He has been a clear front runner in the past three security council meetings and in the latest, on 9 September, he received 12 encourage votes and only two discouraging him (members’ ballots can encourage, discourage or express no opinion about a candidate).

Deal-making and dirty tricks inside the race for UN secretary general
Deal-making and dirty tricks inside the race for UN secretary general

Guterres benefited from an early selection process that was unprecedentedly open by UN standards. Each contender had to present a personal manifesto before the 193 countries in the general assembly, and Guterres won points for his humour, charisma and mastery of his brief. But his route to the secretary generalship could still be blocked by a veto from one of the five permanent council members, most plausibly Russia.

Moscow argues it is the turn of an eastern European to provide the UN leadership, and may balk at the former leader of a western European Nato member state taking the helm. The incumbent Ban Ki-moon is from a US treaty ally, South Korea, and was Washington’s preferred candidate 10 years ago.

Last week, a Twitter account in Guterres’ name claimed to have secured Moscow’s support, triggering speculation the race could be abruptly over. But the account turned out to be a fake.

In second place is Slovakia’s foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, who enjoyed a surprise surge from second last after his country’s pro-Russia prime minister, Robert Fico, visited Moscow four days before the third poll and made a point of highlighting his criticisms of EU sanctions on Russia over Crimea. For that reason, Lajčák may face a veto from one or more of the western members of the permanent five.

Third-placed Vuk Jeremić, the Serbian foreign minister, will almost certainly be vetoed by the US, diplomats say. Washington has not forgiven Jeremić for his opposition to Kosovan independence, amid its perception that he used his time as president of the general assembly as a platform for nationalist rhetoric.

The threat of vetoes, however, will only become decisive in the next round, when the permanent five will cast coloured ballots. Any candidate who receives a coloured ballot among their discourage votes will know they have hit a stone wall.

In the ballots so far, the hope that a strong field of women contenders would produce the United Nations’ first female secretary general looks to have been rebuffed. In the latest poll, the first three spots were taken by men.

Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister and head of the UN Development Programme, is one of several highly qualified women in the race who did far worse than expected in the polls, but she played down the role of sexism.

“If you’re asking whether women are being discriminated against – no,” Clark told the Guardian. “There are a lot of factors swirling around. There is east-west, there is north-south, there’s the style of what’s wanted in the job. Do they want strong leadership? Do they want malleable? It’s all cross-cutting and we don’t know what will come in the wash.”

Natalie Samarasinghe, the head of the United Nations Association – UK, who campaigned for a more transparent selection process this year, thinks gender has played a role, albeit a secondary one.

“Highly qualified and experienced women have done less well than men with comparatively sparse CVs,” Samarasinghe said. “I have no doubt that sexism is a factor. But I don’t think it’s the whole story. Power politics matters more. What we are seeing is a battle between P5 [permanent five] members to assert themselves, in which the candidates may ultimately matter less than who is seen to get their way and who can extract the most for giving way.”

Ultimately, competition and deal-making among the major powers will decide the winner. The ups and downs of the straw polls are an outward sign of what is going on behind closed doors but do not tell the whole story. The most consequential rivalry in the race this week, for example, will be played out thousands of miles from UN headquarters, in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

After Bulgaria’s official nominee, Irina Bokova, the head of the UN education and culture organisation, Unesco, performed below expectations in the security council ballots, a behind-the-scenes campaign began to replace her with her fellow countrywoman, Kristalina Georgieva, the EU budget commissioner, who was defeated in the initial struggle to win the nomination.

The appearance of a series of articles attacking Bokova, in the British press and elsewhere, led Bokova to complain of an “undignified” smear campaign. Conservative and rightwing European leaders also began talking up Georgieva, culminating in an attempt by Angela Merkel to persuade Vladmir Putin to accept her at the G20 meeting in China earlier this month.

The German overture backfired, drawing a backlash from Moscow, while also infuriating France, who objected to Merkel trying into muscle into what Paris saw as a prerogative of the security council.

Georgieva has also been on the receiving end of dirty tricks. On 9 September, the email account of one her staff members was hacked and emails purporting to be from one of her top aides were sent out to the rest of her office, instructing them to attack Bokova. Her camp saw it as an attempt to discredit Georgieva.

The outcome of this bitter struggle will be decided after Monday’s ballot by the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov. A fortnight ago, government officials briefed journalists in Sofia that Borisov was about to swing his support behind Georgieva. However, soon afterwards he changed his mind and said he would wait to see how Bokova did in the fifth ballot on Monday before making up his mind.

Since then, Russian officials have been canvassing votes for Bokova as a way of keeping Georgieva out of the race.

“If Russia can get her to 10 ‘encourages’ it would be hard for Borisov to defenestrate her. If she stays at seven or eight, she is not safe,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the UN at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Even if Georgieva did make a late entrance into the race, she could still face a veto from Russia. She is after all a member of a European commission, currently enforcing sanctions on Moscow.

The permanent five’s potential vetoes in the secretary general contest are bargaining chips on a table on which rivalry in Syria, Ukraine and other conflicts is being brokered. The poisonous atmosphere in the council could make for a protracted struggle to which the most qualified candidates fall victim, opening the way for a more obscure contender.

Alternatively, Gowan argues, the permanent five might momentarily bury their differences to protect their shared privilege, as failure to do so would open the way for the wider UN membership in the general assembly to play a greater role in resolving security council deadlock.

“For all the geopolitical difference, the logic of P5 control means they could still do a deal. The P5 is a little unnerved by how much all the transparency stuff has shaped the contest,” he said. “Their view is that the general assembly has had its fun and should now get back in its box.”

The cross currents of geopolitical struggle and Balkan political intrigue, mean that nothing is decided until the last moment. For that reason, candidates with indifferent results in past ballots are staying in the race, at least until the coloured ballots in October.

“The band’s still playing,” Clark said. “Anything can come out of this.”

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