Portugal’s Antonio Guterres Inching Closer Towards Becoming Next UN Chief

The discouragement of the women candidates has drawn a lot of flak from the campaign to elect a woman as the next UN secretary general, which has questioned the council’s ability to ‘bring the UN into the twenty-first century’.

When the permanent representative of Italy to the UN, the renowned Francesco Paolo Fulci, assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council in December 1996, he addressed a communication to the president of the General Assembly, the secretary general and circulated copies of a document which since come be known as the ‘Wisnumurti Guidelines’.

Prepared by the permanent representative of Indonesia, it outlined the method for electing the secretary general. The straw polls conducted by pursuing these guidelines were never intended to be a secret affair, not that it mattered. Twenty years later, when the third straw poll was conducted on August 29, the outside world came to know about it almost immediately.

The following is the tabulation of votes polled by each of the ten candidates in the third straw poll, along with the number of votes polled by them in the first two rounds.

Candidate Encourage Discourage No Opinion 2nd Round 1st Round
Antonio Guterres,


11 3 1 11-2-2 12-0-3
Miroslav Lajcak,


9 5 1 2-9-4 7-3-5
Irina Bokova,


7 5 3 7-7-1 9-4-2
Vuk Jeremic,


7 5 3 8-4-3 9-5-1
Susana Malcorra,


7 7 1 8-6-1 7-4-4
Srgjan Kerim,


6 7 2 6-7-2 9-5-1
Helen Clark,

New Zealand

6 8 1 6-8-1 8-5-2
Danilo Turk,


5 6 4 7-5-3 11-2-2
Natalia Gherman,


2 12 1 3-10-2 4-4-7
Christiana Figueres,

Costa Rica

2 12 1 5-8-2 5-5-5

The following broad conclusions emerge:

  • Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, who, until recently, was also the high commissioner for refugees, has emerged as the candidate most likely to be the next secretary general.
  • Miroslav Lajcak, the foreign affairs minister of Slovakia, is the only other candidate to secure the required threshold of votes. Interestingly, the votes he polled in the three rounds have fluctuated consistently, 7-3-5 in the first, 2-6-7 in the second and 9-5-1 in the third. He could be regarded as having an outside chance of getting elected, if, for some reason, Guterres’ candidature falters.
  • The three women candidates, Irina Bokova, Susana Malcorra and Helen Clark, in that order, are among the top five, but have received five, seven and eight discourage votes, respectively. All of them have little prospect of reversing the tide, after having failed to secure the required nine positive votes in three successive rounds, and having gotten a significant number of discourage votes.

New Zealand is scheduled to hold the presidency of the council in September. If Clark decides to continue in the race, the next straw poll on coloured paper, indicating the votes of permanent members, will take place under Russian presidency in October.

Likely scenario

With Guterres having established a commanding lead, the final outcome will be shaped by hard bargaining behind the scenes. Given his professional standing and track record, it is unlikely that any permanent member would veto his candidature. What is likely, however, is that the threat of a veto could be effectively used to drive a hard bargain.

The desire to enforce a system of regional and geographical solutions and have an East European as the UN chief will no doubt be used as an argument, even if it used only as a talking point. Given the votes polled by the three women candidates, the gender issue is unlikely to surface even as a talking point in the hard ball-play likely.

The discouragement of the women candidates has drawn a lot of flak from the campaign to elect a woman as the next UN secretary general, which is run by a consortium of organisations working for gender equality. Their latest statement labelled it a matter of ‘clear disrespect for the highly qualified female candidates’ and questioned the council’s ability to ‘bring the UN into the twenty-first century’.

It is of course entirely possible to introduce a new candidate at this stage, but that candidate would require, at the very least, the explicit support of at least three of the five permanent members and a ‘no objection’ from the other two.

With Guterres having secured 12, 11 and again 11 positive votes after three rounds, finding another candidate with a profile and experience to match his appears a tall order. Barring some completely unforeseen development(s), Guterres is likely to be the ninth secretary general of the United Nations.

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