Why is Germany throwing a wild card into the UN leadership race?

An eleventh-hour, unofficial candidate threatens to destabilise the contest. 

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Hopes that the UN might appoint its first woman Secretary-General are about to be dealt a potentially fatal blow, if rumours that began circulating in New York at the end of last week are anything to go by. Experienced UN reporters claimed on Friday that Hungary, Latvia and Croatia, with the encouragement of Germany, are preparing to nominate European Commission Vice-President Kristalina Georgieva (pictured) as a surprise late entry to the race. The following day, media outlets in Georgieva’s native Bulgaria reported that the government in Sofia would this week switch its nomination to back her. Confirmation that something is afoot came yesterday when the Russian Foreign Ministry took the unprecedented step of revealing that the German Chancellor had indeed attempted to procure Russian support for “a candidate from Bulgaria other than the one officially nominated” at last week’s G20 Summit in China.

Moves to launch Georgieva’s candidacy have been going on for months, as previously reported here. Such an eleventh hour bid threatens to derail the campaign of Irina Bokova, Bulgaria’s official nominee, and the only woman in the field who still has a realistic chance of becoming Secretary-General. The Security Council has held four rounds of straw balloting in which member countries are invited to register their "encouragement" or "discouragement" for each of the candidates. In the two most recent rounds, Bokova was the highest placed woman and the only one to receive more votes of encouragement than discouragement – seven to five plus three "no opinions". All of the other women received seven or more votes of discouragement. This effectively makes it impossible for them to meet the threshold that requires the winning candidate to secure the support of nine of the Security Council’s fifteen members.

Bokova has the advantage of being from Eastern Europe, the only UN region never to have held the post of Secretary-General. With veto-wielding Russia sticking firmly to its line that the principle of regional rotation should be upheld in Eastern Europe’s favour, the position of current frontrunner, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, is perhaps less strong than it appears. Although he has received far fewer votes of discouragement than anyone else in the field, one of these is thought to be from Russia.

Three men from Eastern Europe currently have more votes of encouragement than Bokova. One of these, former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, is certain to be vetoed by the US because of his rejectionist position on the status of Kosovo. Srgjan Kerim from Macedonia has seven votes of discouragement, putting him short of the finishing line. Miroslav Lajcak, the current Foreign Minister of Slovakia, looks to be in a good position having shot from tenth to second place in the third round of voting. However, the suspicion that this surge owed something to his government’s call for EU sanctions on Russia to be dropped three days earlier may well be enough to draw a US veto.

By any reckoning, Bokova would seem to stand a good chance of emerging from the middle of the pack as the compromise choice. Georgieva, by contrast, has very little prospect of success. One Security Council member – Venezuela – has already objected that it is “too late” to parachute new candidates into a process that is already quite far advanced. Apart from anything else, Georgieva lacks the necessary credentials. Although considered an able technocrat, she has no serious diplomatic experience to compare with Bokova’s two terms as Director-General of UNESCO. Most damagingly of all, she is seen as the darling of Brussels at a time when Russia is still smarting under the impact of EU sanctions. Moscow’s willingness to go public about the manoeuvrings in Georgieva’s favour should be taken as a pretty clear signal of disapproval and a willingness, if necessary, to veto her candidacy.

The question arises of why anyone would consider replacing a viable candidate with one who seems certain to fail. The answer is that the European leaders manoeuvring on Georgieva’s behalf all belong to the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) and they feel that the opportunity to lead the UN should go to one of their own. European politics used to be a fairly consensual business involving a large degree of bipartisan co-operation, but that balance has broken down in recent years as the EPP has enjoyed long periods of dominance in the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. The result has been an increasing tendency for right-wing leaders to act in a spirit of high-handed partisanship in their dealings with others. Centre-left governments that step out of line are dealt with firmly while a blind eye is turned to the misdemeanours of their counterparts on the right. Jobs are to be doled out on the basis of party loyalty rather than merit.

The corrupting effect of this mentality is neatly illustrated by the fact that the person leading the effort to promote Georgieva’s candidacy is Hungary’s Viktor Orban, someone who has spent his years in power gerrymandering his country’s constitution, stifling media freedom and scapegoating migrants. Orban is a demagogic, xenophobic, authoritarian. Any self-respecting democratic organisation would have expelled him from membership years ago. Yet in a Europe dominated by the EPP he is allowed to play the role of kingmaker instead.

Everything now depends of Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov. His Cabinet scheduled to meet in emergency session tomorrow to make a decision. Will Borisov yield to the pressure of his friends in the EPP by agreeing to nominate Georgieva or will he put the national interest first by sticking with a candidate who still has a realistic chance of raising Bulgaria’s international prestige by becoming the world’s most senior diplomat? In normal times the question would answer itself, but these are not normal times.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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