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The Day the UN Elected a President in a Virtual Lottery

The UN General Assembly in session. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

UNITED NATIONS, May 31 2018 (IPS) - The battle between two candidates for the presidency of the 193-member General Assembly next week harks back to the day when the president of the highest policy making body at the United Nations was elected on the luck of a draw –following a dead heat.

With the Asian group failing to field a single candidate, the politically-memorable battle took place ahead of the 36th session of the General Assembly (GA) back in 1981 when three Asian candidates contested the presidency: Ismat Kittani of Iraq, Tommy Koh of Singapore and Kwaja Mohammed Kaiser of Bangladesh (described as the “battle of three Ks”).

On the first ballot, Kittani got 64 votes; Kaiser, 46; and Koh, 40. Still, Kittani was short of a majority — of the total number of members at that time — to be elected to the presidency. On a second ballot, Kittani and Kaiser tied with 73 votes each.

In order to break the tie, the outgoing General Assembly President – Rudiger von Wechmar of Germany– drew lots, as specified in Article 21 relating to the procedures in the election of the president (and as recorded in the Repertory of Practice of the General Assembly).

And the luck of the draw, based purely on chance, favoured Kittani, in that unprecedented General Assembly election.

Come June 5, two candidates will vie for the prestigious post, but it is very unlikely that history will repeat itself.

The two in the running are:Mary Elizabeth Flores Flake, Permanent Representative of Honduras, and María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador—both from the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) group.

On the basis of geographical rotation, the LAC Group claims the upcoming presidency—an elected high ranking UN position which has been overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Since 1945, the Assembly has elected only three women as presidents: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India (1953), Angie Brooks of Liberia (1969) and Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa of Bahrain (2006). And that’s three out of 72 Presidents, 69 of whom were men.

Espinosa Garces, a former Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations (2008-2009), was once the trade union leader of the UN Permanent Representatives Association.

The biggest single factor that may go against her is that Ecuador had held the Presidency once before– Leopoldo Benites of Ecuador back in 1973. And to be elected again would go against precedent.

As a longstanding tradition, every one of the 193 member states –- with the exception of the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely Britain, the United States, France, China and Russia –- is expected to take their turn for the presidency.

The only country that has been elected twice is Argentina (Jose Arce at the second Special Session in 1948 and Dante Caputo in 1988).

According to a Middle Eastern diplomat,Flores Flake of Honduras, on the other hand, is unlikely to garner many votes from either the Arab or Muslim member states because Honduras is one of the few countries which has followed in the highly-controversial footsteps of President Donald Trump and decided to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem.

As a result, it could be a close fight for the presidency.

One of the recently contested presidencies was in 2011 when two candidates– Kul Chandra Gautam of Nepal and Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser of Qatar— vied for the post, both representing the Asian Group.

Providing a detailed analysis of the political mechanics behind GA elections, Gautam, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general and an ex-deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told IPS last week that the election of the president of the General Assembly (PGA) is normally settled in the regional groups, and goes to the full GA for formal endorsement of the nominee of the region concerned.

If no unanimous choice emerges at the regional level through informal negotiations among multiple candidates, the common practice has been to have one or more “straw polls” at which the candidate with the most votes is “nominated’ as the “unanimous” candidate of the region, he explained.

Usually, he said, there is a “gentleman’s agreement” among members of the regional group to abide by the result of the “informal straw poll” in which the member state whose candidate gets fewer votes “voluntarily” withdraws its candidate to allow the candidate who got more votes to be the “unanimous nominee” of the whole region.

Because of this “gentleman’s understanding” at the regional level to which most member states subscribe “voluntarily” — there has rarely been a contested election in the full GA, said Gautam.

Usually, as a formality, the GA approves the single nominee of the region “unanimously” by acclamation.

“As you mention, in 1981, the Asian Group could not come to a consensus, and hence a real election was conducted in the GA, and when the votes in the GA were evenly divided, it went to the luck of the draw by the then PGA,” he pointed out.

“As I said, this happens very rarely, when some member-states presenting candidates for PGA feel that they may not win the majority in their regional group but feel they can garner more support from other regions in the full GA. As securing “unanimous nomination” from a regional group is not a binding UN rule but depends on the informal “gentlemen’s understanding”, member states contesting for the PGA position do retain the right to ask for voting in the full GA, if they so choose,” he noted.

“I am not sure how it all played in the GRULAC (Latin American and Caribbean) regional group in the current contest for PGA,” said Gautam.

In the case of Nepal and Qatar contesting for PGA, both these member-states — and the Asian Group as a whole — had agreed to the “gentlemen’s agreement” formula to nominate whoever got more votes in the informal “straw poll” in the Asian Group as the region’s “unanimous” candidate.

It was agreed in advance, he said, that the votes cast in the straw poll would be kept secret, known only to three persons — an Ambassador/Permanent Representative (PR) designated by Nepal from among the Asian Group, an Ambassador/PR designated by Qatar, and the President of the Asian Group for that month.

The two ambassadors designated by Nepal and Qatar served as polling officers – who counted the votes and reported the result to the President of the Asian Group.

“I recall the President of the Asian Group advising the assembled PRs and reps of the Asian Group that “the vote was extremely close” but that Qatar had received more votes than Nepal.”

At that point, as agreed in advance, he asked the Nepali Ambassador to speak. The Nepali PR then gracefully withdrew its candidate, allowing the Qatar candidate to be the Asian Group’s “unanimous” candidate referred to the full GA.

“So long as the election/straw poll in the regional group is conducted in a free, fair and impartial manner, I consider that to be an acceptable democratic practice. For member states to take the election to the full GA is actually an even more democratic practice.”

What is sometimes wrong – as in national elections – is if some countries and candidates resort to “cheque-book diplomacy” to secure votes by promises of more aid, trade or other official or personal inducements to secure undue advantage. Unfortunately, it does sometimes happen in the UN and its specialized agencies and is known as an open secret, Gautam said.

“I hope that is not the case in the forthcoming PGA election from the LAC region, as both candidates seem well qualified and neither seeming to have any unfair advantage. May the best candidate win.”

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org

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  • Raul

    Excelente artículo, es el más informativo que he leído sobre la elección actuales de PAG de la ONU, interesado por ser de Honduras.