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U.N. Takes Straw Poll on Annan Replacement

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Mark Turner, United Nations correspondent for the Financial Times, discusses a straw vote that was held at the U.N. on Thursday to identify key contenders in the race to succeed Kofi Annan.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

At the United Nations today a straw vote will be held to identify key contenders in the race to succeed Kofi Annan. The real vote for the new secretary-general will take place in December.

Today's straw poll is intended to weed out the weak candidates and encourage the stronger ones. For more, we go now to Mark Turner, the United Nations correspondent for the Financial Times. He joins us from his office at the United Nations. Welcome, Mark.

Mr. MARK TURNER (United Nations Correspondent, Financial Times): Hi, hello.

MARTIN: So who are the frontrunners?

Mr. TURNER: Well, the frontrunner is pretty clear. I don't even know if there are frontrunners. At this stage there's one man who appears to be in a pretty commanding lead: Ban Ki Moon, the foreign minister of South Korea. Last straw poll he got 14 encouragements from the 15 members of the Security Council and one against.

MARTIN: That's what they're called, encouragements? That is so gentile.

Mr. TURNER: Well, (unintelligible) diplomatically here. You don't vote a yes or a no. You encourage or discourage. It's seen as a little bit more polite, I guess. It also allows you to change your opinion and also to encourage more than one candidate.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about Minister Ban?

Mr. TURNER: Well, it's a little bit difficult to really get the measure of the man. He's very quiet. He's studiously avoided any kind of controversy over the past few months. I think this has been his strategy in fact, just sort of saying all sorts of good, vague things about the need for U.N. reform and meeting new challenges and so forth but not really going into any details as to how he would do it.

I think more to the point, he just seems at this moment like a guy that both, you know, the Chinese and the U.S. and other great powers can live with, and that is ultimately what you need to be a secretary-general.

MARTIN: If you have questions about the new U.N. secretary-general, please do call us. Our number is 800-989-8255. If you have questions about what your expectations are for the new U.N. secretary-general, please do call us. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 or talk@npr.org.

Mark, which countries are supporting Minister Ban?

Mr. TURNER: To be honest, we don't know because, despite claims that this has been a more transparent process, and it's certainly been a more public process in some ways than in the past, all the encouragements or discouragements are cast behind closed doors and no one's admitting who they're supporting. Though with Mr. Ban, given that he's got 14 out of 15, the real question has been who was against him, not who was for him.

And the speculation is - I mean, the key point is did one of the permanent members of the Security Council, who have a veto, vote against him last time and would they be likely to vote against him again? If not, he's almost a shoo-in. If it was a permanent member of the Security Council, he might face a challenge in getting that vote, but we'll see.

Today the vote will not differentiate between permanent and the rest of the members of the Security Council. But on Monday they're going to start to differentiate, and that will make things much clearer. Although, to be honest, by the end of today we may have a sense whether Ban Ki Moon's lead is unassailable or not.

Mr. TURNER: What are people looking for - what are the members looking for in a secretary-general? I would assume there are very different views about what one wants in that position depending on, you know, what country you're in, where you're aligned and things of that sort. So what are the factors that are leading to countries to support him. And, as you said, I understand - I take your point that he seemed to have very broad support, but why would - what are his critics saying about him, or what are the factors that are arguing against his selection?

Mr. TURNER: I mean, to be honest, you know, you can discuss in theory what it is that people want in a new secretary-general in terms of strong management skills or an ability to broker conflicts, but I think it comes down to more -is this someone that's going to cause a problem for any of the great powers?

It's sort of almost in a more negative term because there is a slight sense I think among some of the powerful nations that they don't want a campaigner who's going to cause difficulties for them. They want someone who's a little bit quieter, who's going to help where he's asked to, you know, maybe do some back-room diplomacy and resolve conflicts and also get the U.N.'s own house in order.

Certainly the U.S. and some of the Europeans have been very strong on the fact that they want the next secretary-general to be more of a manager. As one commentator put it, they want a decaffeinated Kofi.

MARTIN: I'm going to have to ask you what that means, but let's take a caller. Let's go to Berkeley and Kate(ph). Hello, Kate? Kate, are you there? What's your question? Okay, well sorry, Kate. We're not there.

Okay, a decaffeinated Kofi. Please interpret for me. Be my translator.

Mr. TURNER: Well, I think it sounds good more than anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TURNER: But Kofi Annan was a secretary-general who took fairly outspoken public positions on a number of things and I'm not sure that the U.S. or Russia or China want that again. We'll have to see, but I think the impression is that they're looking for a bit of a quieter, more workman-like secretary-general who looks internally to begin with to try and sort out, you know, the myriad management problems that the U.N. has faced and maybe not such a sort of a public figure taking strong stances.

But on the other hand, there's been a history of the great powers choosing secretary-generals to be like that. In fact, Kofi Annan himself was chosen on the basis of being a quiet public servant who turned out to be a little bit more outspoken than some had imagined. And so was one of the U.N.'s most powerful secretary-generals, Dag Hammarskjöld, back in the ‘60s. He was also similarly chosen as a rather quiet guy who wasn't seen as a threat to any of the superpowers who then emerged as an extraordinarily outspoken advocate of what the secretary-general's role should be.

MARTIN: Is there lobbying for this position?

Mr. TURNER: Yes, there certainly is lobbying. There's a lot of high-profile public visits and op-eds in newspapers and public appearances that goes on above the radar screen as it were. But there's also probably, though we know a lot less about it, a lot of backroom dealing: talking between candidates and potential supporters as to who might get what jobs in their cabinet, in as much as there is a cabinet in the U.N.

MARTIN: Now I assure you I'm not putting my hand up, but I do wonder: Are any women being considered for the position?

Mr. TURNER: The only woman who has put forward her name so far is the Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. She suffers from the unfortunate fact that she comes from Latvia, which is a country that Russia would certainly not like to see represented as the secretary-general as it were. And also there's…

MARTIN: Why not?

Mr. TURNER: Why not? Just because I guess Latvia is seen as a country which hasn't got the greatest relations with Russians. It represents I guess a certain diminution of Russian pride, the fact that Latvia became independent after the Cold War. But I think also more generally there is a sense that it is Asia's turn even though Eastern Europe claims it's never had a secretary-general. The deal was last time, when they had an African for, as it were, a third term of an African, that next time it would be Asia.

MARTIN: And speaking of pride, why do countries pursue this position? Is it partly a matter of national pride of achieving prominence on the world stage, or are there the personal ambitions of the diplomats or - why does one put oneself forward for this? Is it an individual decision or is it a decision that's made by the country or the - how does that work?

Mr. TURNER: It's a mix of both. If you take for example Shashi Tharoor, the Indian candidate, one gets the impression it's very much been a personal ambition of his to become secretary-general for many years, and in fact a lot of people were very surprised when he got India's endorsement, not least most of the Indian foreign ministry.

So yes, there's certainly a certain amount of individual pride. But obviously some - Korea seems to think it's - you know, it would be a mark of respect for its, you know, nationhood and so forth.

The irony is of course that since most secretary-generals come from, you know, fairly middle-ranking or, you know, non-threatening nations, it's not so much a mark of a nation's greatness as a mark of a nation's lack of greatness, generally, that has let it's nationals to become a secretary-general.

MARTIN: Mark Turner, the United Nations correspondent for the Financial Times. He joined us from his office at the United Nations. Thank you, Mark.

MARTIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

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