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Former Prime Minister of Portugal poised to become U.N. secretary general

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday endorsed Portugal’s António Guterres, a former prime minister and former head of the U.N. refugee agency, to be the world body’s next secretary general.

The full 193-member General Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday on the Security Council’s recommendation that Guterres succeed South Korean Ban Ki-moon when he steps down at the end of the year after two five-year terms. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who is the council president for the month of October, said he hoped Guterres would win by acclamation.

All five permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers, including the United States, were among the 13 members voting to “encourage” Guterres – in effect a vote of support. There were two “no opinion” votes, and no nation voted to “discourage” him.

The victory of Guterres, once head of Portugal’s center-left Socialist Party, came after five straw polls taken this year among General Assembly members. Guterres – who is fluent in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese and often is described as a consummate diplomat – came out on top every time.

His selection was still something of a surprise. Many observers expected Russia, which had stated its preference for an Eastern European, to veto the selection of a new secretary general from a NATO country. There also had been pressure to choose a woman.

The consensus around Guterres was widely applauded by groups that praised his political skills and his knowledge of one of world’s most intractable hot spots, Syria. Guterres was the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade until last year. He headed the agency when Syrian refugees began flooding into Europe and the Middle East to escape the war that still rages.

“Syria will be his number one challenge,” said Michael Doyle, a former U.N. assistant secretary general under Kofi Annan and director of Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative. “This will be a job that won’t be short of things to be done. He is walking into the storm. But he’s a person who likes challenges.”

In the past, selecting a new secretary general was done in private, with a lot of backroom brokering. This year, in a quest for transparency, more than a dozen candidates put their names forward, submitted résumés and publicly answered questions about what they would do in the job.

Guterres repeatedly promised to continue pressing the plight of the oppressed.

Yvonne Terlingen, a steering member of 1 for 7 Billion, a campaign urging a better process for choosing a U.N. leader, said Guterres came to the interviews and public debates with a plan for achieving gender parity in choosing his leadership team.

“He said it would be a priority for him when he comes to office,” she said. “He cited his own record as chief of the UNHCR, where he made senior appointments of women. There is a lot of talk now from people who expect his deputy will be a woman. That would be a sign of his commitment in achieving gender parity.”

The more-open process may made it more awkward for Russia to reject Guterres, even though Churkin said his country thought it was Eastern Europe’s turn to provide a U.N. head, preferably a woman.

“Russia decided it could live with Guterres,” said Martin Edwards, a professor of international relations at Seton Hall University. “Arguably, they thought he’s going to still try to be a mediator, not come across and say whatever [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry says.”

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