(Bloomberg) -- Portugal’s Antonio Guterres has the chops to lead the United Nations: he led his nation as prime minister and later coordinated humanitarian aid shipments to refugees fleeing war zones. That might not be enough.
As the most recent head of the UN’s refugee agency, Guterres has won the support of 80 percent of Security Council members following four rounds of straw polls. Yet an unspoken custom over geography -- it’s Eastern Europe’s “turn” to lead the UN -- and an active campaign to name the first-ever female Secretary-General means he may not get that chance.
The UN has had eight leaders since its founding in 1945, all of them men. In an interview Wednesday at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York, the 67-year-old Guterres said he had a solid track record on gender equality going back to the mid-1990s, when he pushed to bring more women into his government, and that he can’t change his nationality.
“I cannot change what I am,” he said, adding that “if the decision is that the symbolic value of having a woman is what matters, then choose another person.”
While the UN has made an unprecedented effort to open the Secretary-General selection process -- candidates are now interviewed publicly -- it is still far from transparent, in keeping with an institution that grew in the shadows of the Cold War and still reflects that postwar world order.
Whoever succeeds Ban Ki-moon inherits a institution with a $13 billion budget whose standing as an arbiter of peace has suffered repeated blows, from Syria’s prolonged carnage to North Korea’s nuclear infractions, as well as the occasional success, such as last year’s climate change deal.
From the U.S. election campaign to Brexit, Guterres said the pace of change in the world is disrupting politics and society, but that it can’t be turned back.
“Our world and basically each country in our world today has become multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious,” Guterres said. “It is impossible to stop. Diversity is a richness, it’s not a threat.”
Tradition calls for the 15-member Security Council to settle on a name for the one-nation, one-vote General Assembly to rubber stamp next month. The horse trading behind the scenes can see an early favorite displaced by a compromise candidate who won’t upset a delicate power balance between the five veto-wielding nations: U.S., Russia, France, China and the U.K.
Former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali repeatedly clashed with the U.S., which helped block his candidacy for a second five-year term. The French eventually withdrew their initial opposition to the compromise candidate, Kofi Annan, who then went on to appoint a Frenchman as head of peace-keeping operations for the first time.
In the current race, Russia’s connections to Eastern Europe means it could have the biggest say in whoever ultimately gets the job. Russia, like other Security Council members, hasn’t expressed a public preference for any candidate.
“I think that Russia could give Guterres a chance, if he is willing to offer them some big concessions,” said Richard Gowan, a UN scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The irony is that, while Guterres enjoys a lot of goodwill from Western states, he may need to appease non-Western powers by giving them greater influence at the UN.”
In hearings broadcast on the internet in April, Guterres presented himself as “an honest broker” who will come down hard on peacekeepers accused of rape. He said that fixing the organization requires the protection of whistle-blowers who expose sexual misconduct, corruption and other illegal activity.
“I want people to feel that at the highest level that they are protected,” he said.
With the final vote expected next month, there is still time for Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova -- who heads the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- to close the gap with Guterres or for her compatriot Kristalina Georgieva, the EU Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, to throw her name in the ring. The gathering of the world’s ruling elite in New York this week could help tilt the scales one way or another.
In its 71 years, the UN’s Secretary-Generals have generally come from smaller countries -- Norway, Sweden, Myanmar, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea.
Guterres said he is a great admirer of Annan, a UN veteran who called the 2003 U.S.-led war on Iraq illegal and is seen as a vocal and charismatic leader in a way that Ban, a mild-mannered foreign minister, never was.
At the helm of one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, Guterres was constantly on the go. Melissa Fleming, the UNHCR spokeswoman who accompanied Guterres on most of his trips, remembers one instance that harks back to his early formation as a professor, before he abandoned academics for politics.
It was in early 2014, during a visit to a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that sheltered families fleeing Syria’s civil war. Dressed in a brown sweater and khakis, Guterres walked into a makeshift classroom and soon took over from the teacher.
“He was drawing on a blackboard and trying to teach math to students,” she said on the phone from Geneva. “He was always out in the field meeting with refugees and wanting to know what they were going through.”
The former engineer cemented a reputation as a consensus builder years earlier when he led the Socialist Party to victory in 1995 and became the only minority government in Portugal to survive a full term in office since the end of a four-decade dictatorship. Guterres resigned as prime minister in the middle of his second term after his party’s defeat to the opposition Social Democrats in December 2001 municipal elections.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said he was perhaps the country’s most popular prime minister. “Others generated great passions, but also great opposition,” Rebelo said.
Guterres will seek to avoid that fate when the Security Council votes on his candidacy next month. If he wins, his term would begin Jan. 1.
(A previous version of this story corrected de Sousa’s role to say he is the current president.)