Georgieva shakes up race for top UN post, paves way for a development leader to take the helm

Kristalina Georgieva, European commissioner for budget and human resources. Photo by: © European Union 2014 — European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

The United Nations race for secretary-general just got a little more interesting.

The Bulgarian government announced Wednesday it was nominating Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for budget and human resources, for the top U.N. job, following a long period of speculation about whether she would join the race.

The switch-up could give Georgieva a running shot against António Guterres, the former high commissioner for the United Nations refugee agency, who has dominated the polls leading up to the Security Council’s final closed-door vote on Tuesday. It also likely means the next secretary-general will come from a strong global development background.

“We are extremely aware of the consequences of the leadership vacuum coming from the international level with the displacement crisis right now and the difference between rhetoric and reality on the ground,” said Nazanin Ash, the vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. “We are excited to see candidates who have credentials and experience in the development arena and with this crisis, especially on the heels of the summits last week focused on refugees and migrants.”

Guterres tops UN chief straw poll, Clark stays in

The results from the closed-door Security Council session show former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, a consistent front-runner in the race for secretary-general, still in the lead. UNDP Administrator Helen Clark finished in the bottom third of the poll, but vowed to stay in the race.

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov announced the country’s nomination of Georgieva at a cabinet meeting, saying, “We consider that this will be a more successful nomination,” according to Reuters. While Bulgaria has backed another national, Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, she has not received substantial support in the race. Bokova came in the sixth out of nine candidates in the fifth Security Council secret ballot, known as a straw poll, held Monday.

Georgieva accepted the nomination in a statement, saying she was “mindful of the great responsibility that the office bears and of the opportunities as well as the challenges it presents.” The EU official, now on leave from her position, accompanied her statement by writing she intends to soon present her credentials and vision for the job.

Despite Georgieva’s late official entry into the race, her name has been “frequently mentioned in U.N. circles from the beginning,” said Jeff Crisp, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center who previously held senior positions with UNHCR, including head of policy and development under Guterres’ tenure. He has been closely following the race, driven by the personal connection.

All the same, Georgieva’s last-minute entry, following several months of front-runners campaigning openly, could work against her as other candidates have had months to lobby behind closed doors, said one civil society observer connected to diplomats involved in the process who spoke on condition of anonymity, given his organization’s neutrality on candidates.

Georgieva has an extensive background at the World Bank, and at one point worked as the director for the organization’s strategy and sustainable development. She now manages the European Union’s budget and works on fraud and corruption, among other issues.

As a secretary-general candidate, she meets certain key criteria — she comes from Eastern Europe, a factor Russia is said to favor, and also is a woman, reflecting the desire from some civil society and political corners to break the tradition of male U.N. leaders.

The 2016 UN secretary-general race: A timeline of events

Diplomats will be hard at work this U.N. General Assembly as the candidates for the U.N. secretary-general race try to win favor from the influential U.N. Security Council. Here's a refresher for what has taken place and a peek to what lies ahead.

Last week, Georgieva spoke at a New York event on global leaders at the International Peace Institute about the need to bring down “silos between institutions.”

She outlined two ways to address global governance problems — one that is “realistic,” and the other “fantastic.”

“The realistic one is extraterrestrials come from space, take over our institutions and fix them. And the fantastic way is that people do it themselves,” Georgieva said.

Georgieva also recently co-chaired a U.N. secretary-general’s panel of experts on humanitarian financing, which produced a report on the financing gap early this year.

“She has already demonstrated significant leadership rallying the international community for doing things differently with humanitarian response and humanitarian financing ... and ensuring that recommendations were bold and really hit on levers of change and were impactful in the system,” Ash said.

António Guterres, meanwhile, served as the prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 before going on to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005. He oversaw the organization until the end of 2015, leading the refugee agency as the number of people displaced by conflict daily grew from less than 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 in 2014.

As the head of UNHCR, Guterres pushed the organization to recognize the intersection of refugee and migration work with peacekeeping, climate change and other issues, Crisp said. He thinks Guterres could impart this broad vision, along with his “incredible network of contacts,” charisma and fundraising strategies to the secretary-general position.

Earlier this week, at the fifth Security Council secret ballot, Guterres received the most “encourage” votes. 

Despite some reforms in this year’s election, the process is still shrouded in secrecy and irregularities. While Georgieva’s entry into the race is taking place quite late in the process, there is no set time limit on when new candidates can join the race.

The next, and last, straw poll on Oct. 5 will be color coded, indicating if a one of the permanent security council members is voting for or against a candidate and intends to exercise veto power.

Any viable candidate needs to secure the support of all the permanent members — the United Kingdom, the United States, France, China and Russia. A veto vote from any of the five could potentially negate the majority support a candidate such as Guterres who has led the race through the series of straw polls conducted over the past few months.

The winning candidate will be approved by a General Assembly by the end of the year, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon steps down from his position.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

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