Kristalina Georgieva was always a sleeper candidate for UN Secretary General. She’s a top international diplomat from Bulgaria who has held key posts at the European Union. But her candidacy was never endorsed by her government, which instead decided to throw its weight behind another skilled diplomat, Irina Bokova, who is a former foreign minister who heads UNESCO.
In UN circles, this was known as the “Bulgarian primary.” But now, it seems that the Bulgarian government has reversed itself. After five informal straw polls by the Security Council, Bokova was never able to crack to the upper tier of candidates to replace Ban Ki Moon. It was clear that her candidacy was probably doomed. So, this morning Prime Minister Boiko Borisov formally nominated Georgieva and withdrew its support for Bokova.
Georgieva currently serves as the vice president of the European Commission and previously served as its budget chief. She’s a former World Bank official and a PhD holding environmental economist (her thesis:“Environmental Protection Policy and Economic Growth in the USA.”) Most recently, she authored a key report for the United Nations about ways to better invigorate financing for humanitarian relief efforts worldwide.
The implications of this move are pretty profound for race to become the UN’s ninth secretary general.
Like Bokova, Georgieva is a veteran diplomat who ticks two key boxes: she is from eastern Europe, and she is a woman. (On the latter, there has been strong pressure from civil society groups to break new ground and have a first-female secretary general; on the former, the UN’s informal system of regional rotation suggests that an Eastern Europe’s turn to helm the world body). Further, Geogieva’s entry into the race comes as there is only one clear frontrunner, former Portuguese prime minister and high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres.
Guterres is neither a woman, nor from Eastern Europe. But he is well-liked, charismatic, and has demonstrated managerial competence as head of a large UN agency. For these reasons, he’s consistently received more support than any other candidate in the race. But to become the next Secretary General, a candidate must past muster with the Security Council, especially the five veto wielding members.
Guterres’ support in the past four out of five straw polls taken by the 15 member UN Security Council has not been unanimous, and it is rumored that veto-holding Russia may not back his nomination. In the last straw poll, conducted on Monday, Guterres received 12 votes in favor, and just two against. If one of those discouraging votes is from Russia (or China), and they stick by their guns, his candidacy is doomed.
This is where Georgieva has an opening. The next straw poll is next week. And this time, the ballots used will distinguish the preferences of the veto-wielding permanent five members from the preferences of the other ten members of the council. This will be the first clear indication of the level of support that candidates receive from the five veto holders.
Before then, Georgieva will be expected to formally introduce herself to the entire UN membership. Each of the other candidates submitted themselves to a public hearing in which they faced questions from all UN member states and civil society groups gathered at the General Assembly.
We can expect Georgieva to do the same as she has been making the rounds in anticipation of this moment. Though not formally a candidate, Georgieva appeared last week before an audience at the International Peace Institute, a UN-affiliated think tank across the street from UN headquarters in New York that has featured conversations with each of the declared candidates. She seemed to hint at her candidacy.
‘So how do you solve the world’s governance problems?’, she asked in closing.
“There are two ways: one is realistic, one is fantastic,” she said.
“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 may very well be the Martian the Security Council was waiting for.