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Portugal’s Guterres set to be UN secretary general

Portugal’s former prime minister Antonio Guterres is poised to become the next secretary general of the United Nations following a decisive vote by the Security Council on Wednesday.

Guterres, who led the UN’s refugee agency for a decade, won backing in the straw poll from 13 of the 15 council members while none of the five veto-holding powers blocked his candidacy.

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 as the world’s diplomat-in-chief.

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

The council will undertake a formal vote on Thursday to confirm the choice of Guterres, Churkin announced, adding that he expected the selection to be “by acclamation.”

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

The 67-year-old socialist politician has pledged to revamp the United Nations to boost its peacemaking efforts and promote human rights.

During the secret ballot, Guterres won four positive votes and one “no opinion” from veto holders, clearing the way for him to become the new UN chief.

Veto powers Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States used color-coded ballots to indicate for the first time whether they intended to block a candidate.

Guterres, who was 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.

He will be the first former head of government to become UN chief, a position that has been held by several foreign ministers, most of whom were chosen during closed-door meetings by the Security Council.

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.

– Good news for the UN –

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.

France’s Ambassador Francois Delattre said the choice of 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.

“We are united in understanding the gravity of the threats that are out there,” Power said.

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.”

Human Rights Watch’s UN director Louis Charbonneau said Guterres could “strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenge,” but cautioned that he will be judged on his ability to stand up to the veto powers.

– 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.

New Zealand’s former prime minister and head of the UN Development Program Helen Clark received three negative votes from the veto powers, as did 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 permanent five members.