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Despite Secret Poll, Race for UN Chief Is Wide Open

By Thalif Deen – Inter Press Service

United Nations, 26 July, (IPS): A "straw poll" conducted in strict secrecy behind closed doors — no stenographers, no Secretariat staff — in the 15-member Security Council has left the race still wide open for a new U.N. secretary-general, who is due to take office next January.

The informal poll Monday did not produce a single clear winner because none of the four candidates was able to muster 15 positive votes: a high water mark in Security Council voting.

Still, the front-runner was South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon (with 12 positive votes, one negative vote and two abstentions), followed by U.N. Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor of India (10:2:3); Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai (7:3:5); and Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka (5:6:4).

The 15 Security Council members had to check-mark ballot papers which only read "encourage," "discourage" and "no opinion."

Since none of the ballots was colour-coded — and no distinction made between the five veto-wielding permanent members and the 10 rotating non-permanent members — it was a futile exercise to figure out who voted for whom, and who was danger of being vetoed when the real vote takes place in October.

"These are very early days, the real race may not yet have begun, and the next secretary-general may not yet be in the frame. The dynamics will now change, and let’s see how the situation pans out," a senior U.N. official told IPS Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I think the only definite or near-definite comment at this stage is that the two lower placed candidates might wish to consider the relative merits of staying in the race or withdrawing with grace," he added.

"I suspect the Thai candidate (who was endorsed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN) was hurt by the political turmoil in his home country and his lack of previous U.N. experience or involvement," he added.

Positioning oneself too early has also been damaging in the past. It would be very surprising if his withdrawal does not lead to speculative testing of the waters by others from ASEAN.

"Dhanapala was hurt, I expect, by the lack of perennial unity in South Asia, and his age (67) seems to have counted against him. The flare-up of civil war in Sri Lanka will not have helped either," said the U.N. official, speaking less than 24 hours after the results were announced late Monday.

Speaking from Bangkok, Asda Jayanama, the former permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations, told IPS that his deputy prime minister should withdraw from the race, making way for "a more qualified ASEAN candidate."

"It is not too late for ASEAN to come up with a new candidate," Jayanama said, "and it has a reason to do so now because of the poor showing of its candidate in the straw polls."

In U.N. circles, there has been considerable speculation that if the Thai candidate falters or withdraws, ASEAN may nominate the former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong.

But the Singapore government has made it very clear that Goh is not an official candidate so far, and that it stands by ASEAN’s endorsement of Surakiart.

James A. Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, which monitors the day-to-day activities of the world body, said: "I would say that the South Korean candidate may be opposed by Japan, which does not have a veto, so it is possible that his candidature faces no veto."

However, judging from the comments of Security Council ambassadors, Paul told IPS, there is no sense that any candidate is close to election at this point.

"These early exercises nearly always lead to further candidates declaring themselves and early candidates losing steam. It is very much like a papal election, in that the world has minimal information," he pointed out.

Paul also said that "speculation, while amusing, does not get us very far."

At this point, he noted, it is better to take the broad view of the process and recognize that the search is on for a pliant and relatively weak candidate whom all the permanent five (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) can feel comfortable with.

Analysing the chances of the two front runners, the senior U.N. official said that with Tharoor there are many things in his favor, but also some problem areas.

"He knows the United Nations well, and has a varied background within the system, including refugees and peacekeeping. Despite almost three decades as a U.N. official, he has not made enemies: not a small trait."

Tharoor, the official said, is articulate, respectful of power and money yet sensitive to developing country aspirations and sentiments, and is a champion of Asia’s rightful place in the U.N. scheme.

"He is also a genuine believer in the ideals and symbolism of the United Nations and has some intellectual heft. But many regard him as lacking in gravitas, without being able to explain just why," he added.

On the South Korean candidate, he said that Ban has the double attraction of having been a former ambassador and a Foreign Minister of his country.

"But will member states want someone from such a deeply conflicted part of the world? Could he stay above the fray each time the Korean problem comes up for discussion at the United Nations?" he asked.

"It would be nice to believe that members vote on the basis of their assessment of what would be best for the organization. A pessimist can always be pleasantly surprised," the official added.

– Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency-

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July 26, 2006 - Posted by | Media, Media Journalism, News, News and politics, World News

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