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Portugal’s Guterres set to be next UN chief

The UN Security Council was poised Thursday to back Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and head of the UN’s refugee agency for a decade, as the next secretary general.

The 67-year-old socialist politician, who will be the first former head of government to become UN chief, has pledged to revamp the global diplomatic body to boost its peacemaking efforts and promote human rights.

His path to the job of world’s diplomat-in-chief was smoothed in a decisive Security Council vote Wednesday, during which 13 of the 15 members backed his candidacy and none of the five veto-holding powers blocked him.

Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin emerged from the council chamber along with the 14 other ambassadors to declare that Guterres was on course to succeed Ban Ki-moon.

“We have a clear favorite and his name is Antonio Guterres,” he said.

Churkin added that Thursday’s vote was expected to confirm the choice of Guterres “by acclamation.”

“We wish Mr Guterres well in discharging his duties as the secretary general of the United Nations in the next five years,” he added.

During the secret election, Guterres won four positive votes and one “no opinion” from veto holders Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, who used color-coded ballots to indicate whether they intended to block a candidate.

Guterres, Portugal’s prime minister from 1995 to 2002, had held the number-one spot in the previous five informal votes, but the quick consensus decision took many diplomats by surprise.

The position has previously been held by several foreign ministers, most of whom were chosen during closed-door Security Council meetings.

This time around, the selection involved a new, more open process that allowed candidates to appear at hearings to make their pitch for the top job before the General Assembly.

Once the Security Council formally endorses him, Guterres will be presented to the General Assembly for approval. The new UN chief begins his five-year term on January 1.

– Good news for the UN –

France’s ambassador Francois Delattre said the choice of the multilingual Guterres — who speaks French, English and Spanish as well as Portuguese — was “good news for the United Nations,” while British envoy Matthew Rycroft said he will make a “very strong, effective secretary general.”

US Ambassador Samantha Power described Guterres’ experience and vision as “compelling” and stressed the need for an effective leader at the UN helm during a time of multiple global crises.

In Portugal the selection of the former Socialist prime minister was met with pride on both the left and right, traditionally deeply divided over most issues.

“We all won! ” wrote daily newspaper Publico on its front page.

Describing Guterres as “exceptional,” Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said the result was “very good for the world, it is very good for the United Nations, it is very good for Portugal.”

Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa voiced his “enormous pride… enormous satisfaction” at the vote.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president of East Timor, called Guterres “a simple person, honest, accessible, humble, very serene and who has his heart in the right place. “

When East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, erupted into violence in 1999 after the territory voted in a referendum in favour of independence from Indonesia, Guterres led diplomatic efforts to convince the United Nations to intervene to restore peace.

– Georgieva’s bid falters –

There were 10 candidates in the race to become the next UN chief, including EU budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria, who entered the fray just last week.

A former World Bank vice president, Georgieva failed to garner crucial support from two of the permanent members, with speculation that Russia opposed her candidacy.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, who was pushed aside by the Bulgarian government to make way for Georgieva, received two negative votes from veto-holders.

Throughout the campaign, there had been calls for the council to choose the first woman secretary general and a candidate from Eastern Europe, the only region that has not been represented in the top job.

Another high-profile woman in the race, Argentina’s Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, received one negative vote from a veto-holder, while Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak received two, diplomats said.

Other potential candidates blackballed were New Zealand’s former prime minister and head of the UN Development Program Helen Clark, Serbia’s ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, Macedonia’s ex-foreign minister Srgjan Kerim and Natalia Gherman of Moldova.

Slovenia’s former president Danilo Turk received four negative votes from the five permanent members.