Who will be the Next UN Secretary General?

Back in 2006, when blogging was still coming into its own as a political medium, I started UNSG.org.  The site aimed to shed light on the selection of Kofi Annan’s successor as UN Secretary General, generally discussed only by academics and government officials behind closed doors. It was a rewarding experience – I went on to do my master’s thesis on improving global leadership selection – and is a topic I look forward to returning to upon the next selection.  That time is almost upon us.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulates his successor Ban Ki-moon in December 2006. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulates his successor Ban Ki-moon in December 2006. UNPhoto/Mark Garten

Ban Ki-moon has almost four years remaining in his second term. His successor will be chosen by the General Assembly in October 2016 upon nomination by the Security Council. In this regard, historical precedent will hold sway. That is about all that will.  A number of other questions – several of which first emerged in the 2006 selection – will make blogging about this process again very exciting.

The first question that will be asked by anyone remotely familiar with the UNSG selection is which region’s “turn” is it now to hold the post. For those less familiar, UN member states are informally and somewhat clumsily divided into five historically based regional groups – Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe and Others (WEOG). (Yes, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Europe is still divided along East and West, while Asia spans from Cyprus to Samoa.) Traditionally each region has rotated into the post for two five-year terms. Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan held it for the African region from 1995-2006, and Ban Ki-moon has since held it for Asia’s two terms.

So whose turn will it be in 2016? The answer is not entirely obvious as the rotation scheme has been an historically imperfect but important geopolitical matter.  Unanimity against the U.S. over renewing Boutros-Ghali’s term in 2000 was overcome when the U.S. agreed to support another African, maintaining the rotation. In 2006, China made it clear that only an Asian would receive its support despite cries for ending the practice.  The three remaining regions are the Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Due to the preponderance of WEOG states in the UN membership during its early years, three of the first four Secretaries General were from that region. The last, Kurt Waldheim, served from 1972-1981. Each other region has held the post since, save Eastern Europe. Colin Lynch has suggested the next round would go to WEOG, naming Helen Clark as a likely candidate. (Clark’s second term at UNDP is scheduled to conclude less than six months after the next Secretary General is selected.)  The UNElections Campaign speculated that WEOG governments will argue for a renewed rotation, with a Western Secretary General again following an Asian incumbent, and preceding in turn a Latin American and African office-holder. Lynch’s speculation on Michele Bachelet as a future Secretary General suggested this possibility as well.

The UN Security Council will nominate a candidate for Secretary General for approval by the General Assembly Photo credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The UN Security Council will nominate a candidate for Secretary General for approval by the General Assembly
Photo credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

This of course again ignores Eastern Europe as a region for the purposes of filling the office. But Richard Gowan, in World Politics Review, isn’t so ready to write them off. He suggests that “there seems to be a general diplomatic consensus that in 2017, Eastern Europe’s turn will come at last.”  He does not elaborate on that, but short lists three East Europeans for the post: former Slovene president Danilo Türk, Slovak diplomat Jan Kubiš, and current UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova from Bulgaria. The fight, he says, will come down to two questions: whether Russia will support a candidate from its former sphere of influence, and the impact that geopolitical tensions, such as those surrounding Syria, will have on the selection.

Eastern Europe’s chances of securing the post improve dramatically if the regional members get behind a single viable candidate, and do so early on. But the cost may be excessive. Unlike in previous selections where candidates were selected from middle to weak economic powers, the top two vote-getters in the 2006 selection came from the 11th and 12th largest economies. There is no reason to believe that this shift will reverse itself in 2016. If Western Europe decides to pursue the post, it could easily outspend its Eastern neighbors in outreach (and potential bargaining chips) with other states.

An inter-European competition could result in a number of scenarios. The worse situation for the Europeans would be the emergence of a compromise candidate from Latin America to whom the Asian and African blocs switch their support. A Latin American bid might argue against the viability of East European candidates and against the dominance of Western Europe in the post previously, on the Security Council and in other intergovernmental institutions currently. To avoid this, either the East and West will need to put forward an impeccable candidate, reach a compromise to rotate the two European terms this round and/or support the other’s candidate in another organization.

Other questions will soon arise in discussions on the selection. Should the next Secretary General be a woman, regardless of region? Will candidates publicize their interest as in 2006, and if so, what role could social media play in their campaigns? These and other questions should be explored and will be in future posts.

Watch this space.

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About Tony Fleming

Tony is a communications and advocacy professional with over 15 years experience in United Nations reform advocacy. He began blogging about multilateral elections in 2006 at UNSG.org. He and his wife currently live in Panajachel, Guatemala. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.