For the fifth time in as many straw polls António Guterres emerged as the preferred candidate of the Security Council for the position as the next Secretary-General of the UN. But who is he, and how did he become so popular in the Security Council?
By Viktor Lerche-Jørgensen Lassen
On Monday, a large majority of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council once again put their support behind former Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres, preferring him to any of the other eight remaining candidates.
As expected, the results of the secret poll were leaked within minutes after the votes were cast, and the results were equally unsurprising. Guterres received 12 ‘encourage’ votes, 2 ‘discourage’ and 1 neutral, the exact same votes he received in the last straw poll on September 9th. With the votes 8/6/1, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Vuk Jeremić, reclaimed second place from current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia, Miroslav Lajčák who received the votes 8/7/0.
Guterres was born in Portugal in 1949. He studied physics and electrical engineering and worked in academia until he joined the Socialist Party in 1974. He quit his position as Assistant Professor, and soon became a party leader in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution that brought democracy to Portugal. In 1995 the Socialist Party won the election, and Guterres became Prime Minister. He was reelected in 1999, but resigned in 2001 after his party performed poorly in local elections.
In 2005 he was elected UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a position he held until 2015. When he first announced his candidature for the position as Secretary-General in February, Guterres wasn’t predicted the best chances. For a long time there had been strong calls for a female Secretary General, as well as demands that the next leader be from Eastern Europe, neither of which Guterres lives up to.
Good performance in public hearings
But during the public hearings and questioning held by the General Assembly in April, many warmed up to the idea of Guterres as the next head of the UN. His experience as UN High Commissioner for Refugees gave him an edge, says Richard Gowan from the European Council on Foreign Relations in the council’s podcast:
“He told some jokes, which was a good start. But he also showed through his various public appearences that he has a really good grasp on the nitty-gritty details of UN operations. Because he has spent so long working on refugee issues, he has a full understanding of humanitarian affairs, that’s to his advantage.”
Richard Gowan also emphasizes Guterres’ communication skills:
“He also showed that he simply is an easy and natural commmunicator, and that really matters at the moment because diplomats in New York have gotten pretty frustrated with Ban Ki-Moon’s somewhat limited communication ability. I think there is a real desire amongst a lot of diplomats here to have someone leading the UN who is a stronger public voice, and so Guterres is looking strong, both as a guy with operational experience on the refugees but also as a political communicator.”
Bulgarian wild card
The straw poll was the last in which no distinction was made between the votes of the five permanent members and the rest of the Security Concil. The next straw poll, announced to be held on October 5th will introduce red ballots for the permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) who each wield veto power. Even if Guterres keeps his lead position, just one ‘discourage’ vote will be enough to eliminate him from the race, if it comes from a permanent member.
It is speculated that one of the ‘discourage’ votes for Guterres was cast by Russia, who might dislike the idea of a previous head of a NATO member state as Secretary General, insisting instead on an Eastern European.
A lot of eyes now rest on the newest candidate in the race, European Comissioner for Budget and Human Recouces Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria. The original Bulgarian candidate, Irina Bokova, has not performed as well as hoped in the polls, so on Wednesday the Bulgarian government pulled their support for her, instead nominating Georgieva. Georgieva has been rumoured as a potential candidate for a while, and several european leaders have already expressed their support for her.
Still, anything can happen. The only thing certain is the fact that Ban Ki-Moon’s successor must be found before his term ends on December 31st.
Stay tuned for continued coverage of the Secretary General selection and other UN news.