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Former New Zealand PM Helen Clark expected to battle on for UN top job

The Guardian The Guardian 30/09/2016 Eleanor Ainge Roy

Helen Clark is hoping she could be the ‘lowest common denominator’ in the race to become UN secretary-general, one expert said. © Xinhua / Barcroft Media Helen Clark is hoping she could be the ‘lowest common denominator’ in the race to become UN secretary-general, one expert said. Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister, is expected to continue battling for the UN top job despite a groundswell to give a candidate from eastern Europe the role.

With Clark already fighting against perceptions that she is too closely tied to the traditional UK-US power axis, Bulgaria’s European Commission vice president Kristalina Georgiev has emerged as a frontrunner after taking up the country’s nomination this week. 

Although former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres remains the favourite for the job, Georgiev’s position as a woman from eastern Europe makes her a strong candidate, denting Clark’s chances in the process.

Outgoing secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said it was “high time” a woman held the powerful posting, a sentiment echoed by roughly a third of the member states. Russia has campaigned hard for a first-ever eastern Europe holder of the office and observers said Georgiev could gain widespread backing.

Clark, who led New Zealand from 1999 to 2008 and is head of the UN Development Programme, came seventh in this week’s straw poll – just two spots from the bottom place. 

But despite her poor polling, commentators in New Zealand said Clark should battle on and that her strength may lie in being the least unpopular candidate vying for the position.

The current New Zealand prime minister, John Key, remains a staunch supporter of his former rival and said Clark, affectionately referred to as “Aunty Helen” in New Zealand, is a “natural leader”.

Professor Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at Waikato University and former UN rapporteur, said Clark had a small chance of gaining the top job but the odds were becoming increasingly “remote” and her strongest position was as a “compromise candidate”.
“Clark must be getting to a point where she is hoping against hope,” said Gillespie. “Clark is hoping she could be the lowest common denomination.”

Professor Robert Patman, a political scientist at Otago University, said Georgieva’s nomination – coming after Bulgarian Unesco chief Irina Bokova came sixth in the last straw poll – did not necessarily mean the end for Clark, but might make it harder for Guterres.

“Georgieva does not have a huge international profile but she is a woman from eastern Europe who is presumably acceptable to most EU countries,” he said.

“That may or may not be good news for Helen Clark’s bid to come from behind once the [permanent members of the security council] realise they cannot realise their first preferred choice. Helen has a lot of support in the general assembly and that may become a factor if the security council cannot soon agree on a candidate.”

However Mark Leon Goldberg, editor of the UN dispatch blog, thinks Clark’s chances have gone from slim to “nil”.

“Her chances before Kristalina Georgieva’s entrance into the race were quite low, and now they’ve gone from low to virtually nil,” he told Radio New Zealand. “She’s a woman, and there’s a lot of pressure to have the first female secretary-general, and she’s also from eastern Europe – and there’s a sense that it’s eastern Europe’s time to assume the top job.”

New Zealand’s ambassador to the UN, Gerard van Bohemen, said Clark’s struggle and poor polling results had surprised him and he had heard talk that despite hailing from a remote South Pacific island, she still carried the weight of being an “anglo” with her.

“It was put to me that whether Helen likes it or not, she is seen as ‘an Anglo’ and people have had enough of Anglo – being UK and US – domination of lots of events.” Boneman told NZME.

“Even though she is neither of their candidates, she gets tarred with being seen of that ilk.”

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