What Exactly Is the Point of the Straw Polls?

Guterres Leads Latest Poll for UN Secretary-General Again, but It May Not Matter

by Laura E. Kirkpatrick This article originally appeared on PassBlue.

The latest Security Council straw poll pointing to the selection of the next secretary-general of the United Nations happened on Sept. 9, with the results leaving António Guterres of Portugal still the front-runner ever since the informal, anonymous balloting began in the Security Council in July.

The latest poll is the fourth such vote; the next one is Sept. 26, after the UN General Assembly opens its its annual debate, to be followed by another in early October with color-coded ballots, according to members of the Security Council. The council will ultimately send its “recommendation” of a candidate to the General Assembly for a final vote.

Russia holds the council presidency in October, and the color ballots will distinguish the council’s permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, from the 10 elected members. Many council members are eager to see the selection done by October, to give the new person time to get used to the job, which starts Jan. 1, 2017.

One possible candidate from Eastern Europe could still step into the selection process, Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian and the European Union’s finance chief. Her candidacy, long speculated but never official, was apparently confirmed on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting last week in China, where her name cemented support from Croatia, Hungary and Latvia, with Germany’s endorsement as well. Al-Arabiya network reported this information on Twitter Sept. 9. A Security Council member also confirmed the rumor.

Immediately after council members left their chambers on Sept. 9 in the UN, there was a journalistic scrum to find out the latest straw poll returns. While reporters tried to be the first to get the scoop on results, several betting sites, PaddyPowers, BetBreakingNews and Sportsbet.Com.Au, had all listed Georgieva in their top 10 by 10:30 that morning.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is said to have won the approval of Georgieva’s candidacy from Vladmir Putin at the G20 meeting. Georgieva, who is a former economist and has worked in Moscow for the World Bank, had not won backing for an official UN secretary-general candidacy from Bulgaria, her country. Instead, her government had nominated Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco, based on complicated party allegiances.

Georgieva’s candidacy could be official as soon as next week, yet she is also rumored to be eyeing a deputy position in another international institution related to the UN. One diplomat on the Security Council also said that a woman, whose name is well known and has been rumored to be a candidate since early this year, will finally throw her hat in the ring for secretary-general — presumably Georgieva. If she becomes a candidate, Bulgaria may be in the awkward position of having to drop its support of Bokova, which could be tricky for the government. Yet if it means that a Bulgarian will lead the UN, it may pay off. Or Bokova could conveniently drop out.

After Guterres’s winning results in the Sep. 9 poll, in descending rank were Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia and Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia, all three latter candidates from Eastern Europe, the region that unofficially claims the right to the secretary-general position. Lajcak kept his №2 spot from the last straw poll, held in late August. Danilo Turk of Slovenia came in sixth this time around.

While no official results have been announced, Reuters and other wire services all returned poor results for female candidates. The top-ranking woman in the latest straw poll, Bokova, is seeded no higher than fifth. She received seven “encourage” votes, five “discourage” and three “no opinion.” Ranking third in the straw poll on Aug. 29, Bokova also placed the highest among the female candidates.

In the Sept. 9 straw poll, the remaining female candidates, Susana Malcorra of Argentina, Helen Clark of New Zealand, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica and Natalia Gherman of Moldova followed. All reports indicate that Figueres and Gherman placed ninth and 10th, respectively.

Besides the possible Georgieva candidacy, other rumors abound on the secret machinations in the selection process, with one unanimous sentiment: the decision will be ultimately made by US and Russia, regardless of the more-open process instituted by public hearings held in the General Assembly.

Some people close to the UN Secretariat, the UN’s inner circle, claim that Malcorra has already been enthroned as the next secretary-general, in a secret decision among the P5, or permanent members, because she was a known quantity and those powers “could work with her,” as she has held several prominent posts in the UN and is now Argentina’s foreign minister.

Yet Malcorra’s seven “discourage” votes in the Sept. 9 poll suggest she has an uphill climb. And some council members eagerly say that the straw polls are not that important until the color-coded ones kick in, leaving the straw polls just a checkers game for council members to move around candidates from spot to spot. Moreover, Malcorra was recently among the countries meeting at the G20 session in China, and her candidacy did not budge an inch forward since that powerful international gathering.

Indeed, each female candidate has apparently something preventing her winning total approval among the P5, in keeping with the enduring problem of women being held to a higher ethical standard than men, as studies suggest: Bokova is not a favorite of Britain or the US; Russia has always opposed Clark’s candidacy; Gherman is too inexperienced for the top job at the UN; and Figueres, while riding the success of ushering through the Paris climate agreement, does not have critical experience in security and peacekeeping operations and is from a small Latin American country. Malcorra, a UN veteran, is not from Eastern Europe, and Britain may be strongly opposed to her because of the lingering Falklands-Malvinas Islands territorial dispute.

One council member, when asked about the value of the latest straw poll results, said that this round was “totally useless,” pointing out that the poll on Sept. 26 will be more illuminating. By then, the annual gathering of the General Assembly, drawing most national leaders to the UN in New York beginning Sept. 13, will have convened, and more decisions will be sealed.

Meanwhile, the other female candidates for secretary-general are left with some brutal realities given their consistent places at the bottom of the straw polls: Figueres will likely withdraw her candidacy soon, as will Gherman. That leaves Clark and Malcorra hanging on at the lowest rungs, not a politically safe place to stay for long.

The new secretary-general will take office in a world where Merkel is joined in Western geopolitical leadership by Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain, and possibly Hillary Clinton as president of the US. Georgieva, presumably scandal-free, Eastern European, female and approved by Russia, could be running the UN from New York.