UNITED NATIONS — Portugal’s former prime minister Antonio Guterres won the Security Council’s unanimous backing Wednesday to become the next U.N. secretary-general, winning plaudits for his strong leadership but disappointing campaigners for a woman or East European to be the world’s top diplomat for the first time.
The veteran politician and diplomat, who served as the U.N.’s refugee chief until December, topped all six informal polls in the council after his performance in the first-ever question-and-answer sessions in the 193-member General Assembly, which received high marks from almost every diplomat.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the assembly hearings showed that Guterres “was an outstanding candidate … who will take the United Nations to the next level in terms of leadership” and will provide “a moral authority at a time when the world is divided on issues, above all like Syria.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, appeared before reporters surrounded by the 14 other council ambassadors after the sixth informal poll of the 10 remaining candidates was held behind closed doors saying: “You are witnessing, I think, a historic scene.”
Churkin then thanked all the candidates saying they displayed “a lot of wisdom, understanding and concern for the fate of the world” and announced: “We have a clear favorite, and his name is Antonio Guterres.”
He said the Security Council would hold a formal vote on Thursday morning and expressed hope that the council will recommend Guterres by “acclamation” to the 193-member General Assembly, which must approve a successor to Ban Ki-moon whose second five-year term ends on Dec. 31.
By tradition, the job of secretary-general has rotated among regions. Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe have all held the post. East European nations, including Russia, argue that they have never had a secretary-general and it was their turn. There has also never been a woman secretary-general and more than 50 nations and many others campaigned to elect the first female U.N. chief.
There was disappointment among East Europeans, who fielded many candidates in the race but never united behind one, and among supporters hoping for a woman. Seven of the 13 candidates who entered the race were women.
Antonia Kirkland, program manager for Equality Now, which has campaigned for a woman secretary-general since 1996, said: “While it is disappointing that a man has once again been proposed by the U.N. Security Council as secretary-general, we are at least hopeful that he will continue the feminist agenda.”
She said this should include “first of all, ensuring gender parity among his staff at the Secretariat, and also prioritizing violence and discrimination against women as a pivotal issue.”
Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, the U.N. official who played a key role in shaping last December’s historic agreement to fight climate change and one of three candidates who dropped out of the race, tweeted: “Bittersweet results #NextSG. Bitter: not a woman. Sweet: by far the best man in the race. Congrats Antonio Guterres! We are all with you.”
In the fifth “straw” poll on Sept. 28, Guterres received two “discourage” votes and there was a lot of speculation about whether Russia would support him.
The sixth poll on Wednesday morning was considered key because it was the first to use colored ballots to distinguish the votes of the five veto-wielding Security Council members — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.
“The permanent members had red ballots and the non-permanent members had white ballots,” Britain’s Rycroft told reporters later.
He said “the crucial moment” for him was the announcement of the result of the fifth permanent member which showed Guterres had no “discourage” votes from any council member.
In that final vote, Guterres had 13 “encourage” votes, no “discourage” votes and two “no opinions.” He was the only candidate to top the required nine “encourage” votes and no “discourage” vote from a permanent member.
Far behind in second place was Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak with a vote of 7-6-2 including two “discourage” votes from permanent members. Serbia’s former foreign minister Vuk Jeremic had the same result but three “discourage” votes from permanent members.
The highest-ranked woman, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, was fourth. Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov dropped the government’s support for Bokova last week in favor of European commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who came in seventh.
The 1 for 7 Billion Campaign, which lobbied for greater openness, inclusivity and meritocracy in the selection of the new secretary-general, called Guterres’ top showing “a triumph” for its goals.
“He was ‘wrong’ in terms of gender and region, but was widely considered to have done well in his General Assembly dialogue and in other events, with many commenting on his experience and ability to inspire,” said campaign co-founder Natalie Samarasinghe.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power praised the “much more transparent process” of selecting a new U.N. chief and said Guterres’ “breakthrough” was his performance in the General Assembly and his experience.
“I think this is a day of unity,” she said. “In the end there was just a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling and it was remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial.”