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Is it all over for Helen Clark in the race to be next UN secretary general?

Straw poll results have been disappointing for NZ’s candidate. But the process is complex and the die not yet cast, writes former NZ ambassador to the UN Terence O’Brien

The selection of the next United Nations secretary general is being conducted this year according to a new formula which extends a greater role to the entire UN membership. Nobody is quite clear about how it will all work out with 12 candidates originally in the field all endorsed by their governments. New Zealand has a serious contender in Helen Clark.

The UN Security Council still has the ultimate say in the sense that it gets to select the final candidate for endorsement by the entire UN membership. Straw polling among the 15 Council members (New Zealand included) has commenced, and two rounds have been held so far. A further round is scheduled before the end of August.

Not over yet: Helen Clark addresses the UN General Assembly (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Not over yet: Helen Clark addresses the UN General Assembly (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Leaking from inside the Council is notorious and the straw poll results are no exception. Leaks so far suggest Clark is polling about midway amongst the list of contenders. Disappointment has been voiced in NZ that she is not performing better. She herself is regretful. But the die is not yet cast. As a recent NZ Prime Minister liked to remark, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Should it be necessary, a graceful withdrawal at the eleventh hour is perfectly respectable – but Helen Clark is not at that point.

Inside the Security Council the five permanent members who have veto power – Britain, France, China, Russia and the US – and whose collective preference is decisive, may already each have their favourite(s) among the candidates but they cannot be sure that their colleagues in that exclusive club share such preference(s). In this event jockeying around the final choice intensifies and compromises become inevitable as the deadline approaches. Such horse trading has in the past produced an agreed candidate whose prospects were originally most uncertain.

There is presently shared conventional wisdom amongst the overall UN membership that the UN must this time, appoint a woman. A segment of the membership also believes the successful candidate must be from Eastern Europe.

Yet according to the leaks the frontrunner in the straw polls to date is a male, West European and from a longstanding Nato member country, Portugal. It seems unlikely that he would be Russia’s first choice. Another among the leaders is a former Serbian foreign minister but he is male and from a country with a notably turbulent past that has only been a UN member since 2000; and there is the female Argentinian foreign minister, although Latin America has already supplied one of the last four secretaries general.

Reproach can be applied in one way or another to just about every single candidate on the list. Given the role that the overall UN membership has played for the first time in initiating the selection process the Security Council has to move with somewhat greater care than in the past as it coalesces around a final choice. Their selection of a secretary general who does not command respect or support from a broad range of the UN membership would start out under a decided handicap.

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