Argentina's Susana Malcorra and Slovakia's Miroslav Lajcák, newcomers to the race for UN secretary-general (SG), are in New York this week for their 'informal dialogues' with the UN General Assembly. Other SG candidates — António Guterres, Vuk Jeremić, and Igor Lukšić — were in London last week participating in a public debate. This has led many UN observers to ask, as Richard Gowan did in The Interpreter in April, 'Where's Kevin?'

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says he's not a candidate for SG but stops short of saying he won't be a candidate in the future. Described by some as an 'epic networker' with a reputation as a megalomaniac, he seems to be doing more campaigning as a non-candidate than several of the actual candidates. Some have suggested the timing of the Australian elections on 2 July has limited Rudd's ability to make moves. Others assume he is intentionally sitting out the early rounds until the 'minnows [have] gone home'. Commentators continue to review his qualifications (both positively and negatively) and to analyse his prospects, but what does Rudd actually have to gain or to lose by holding off with his SG candidacy?

What does Rudd gain by waiting?

Rudd seems to have a fair amount to gain by holding back with his potential candidacy. First, he is able to watch how the race plays out, especially if calls for a female SG and one from Eastern Europe persist. Waiting gives Rudd the possibility to save face — if one or more candidates seem to be garnering enough support in the UN Security Council, he can stay out. One journalist writes, '...there's an expectation among diplomats at the UN that Rudd will calculatedly make a late run and only if his soundings tell him that there is a sliver of daylight through which a compromise candidate might wriggle to win the Security Council's blessing.'

Second, Rudd may be calculating that playing the waiting game will keep conversations focused on whether he will run rather than on his patchy leadership record in domestic politics. While Rudd's interest in the post is receiving some attention, particularly within Australia, he is avoiding the more intense public scrutiny that several of the official candidates are experiencing. Irina Bokova (Bulgaria), for example, is facing accusations that she improperly hired a Brazilian official to a senior-level post at UNESCO and that she exaggerated her experience in her official biography. Critics of Helen Clark (New Zealand) are claiming that at UNDP she has 'left a trail of embittered peers and subordinates, who accuse Clark of ruthlessly ending the careers of underlings in her quest to advance her candidacy and of undercutting the UN's promotion of human rights.'

Finally, unlike the declared candidates, Rudd hasn't had to sit through a two-hour long interview before the UN General Assembly. By avoiding the hot seat, he hasn't been subjected to an onslaught of questions and the possibility of angering certain states by inadequately answering or skipping controversial ones.

What does Rudd lose by waiting?

On the other hand, Rudd is taking some calculated risks with his waiting game, the biggest of which is that the race will be decided before he jumps in. As Gowan suggested in April, 'Politics is all about timing. Just occasionally, you can wait too long to jump into a race and find it's somehow run away from you'. It's entirely possible that one of the current candidates consolidates support and quietly draws away from the rest of the pack, particularly if much of the real jockeying happens behind the scenes. 

There's precedent for candidates entering the race too late. In 2006, Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan and several others waited to enter the race until after the Security Council had conducted its initial straw polls (for more background, see Security Council Report's special research report). In the meantime, Ban Ki-moon and the South Korean Government had started early and used that time to steadily consolidate support behind the scenes. Every SG race plays out differently, but it's a cautionary tale of what can happen if a candidate gets the timing wrong.

By waiting, Rudd is also introducing an externality to his chances of winning; he is relying on the official candidates to each run afoul of at least one permanent member and for the Security Council to become deadlocked. Rudd is, in a way, forfeiting some control over his own involvement in the process.

Finally, some Security Council members could interpret Rudd's waiting as a refusal to 'play the game.' The UN has introduced reforms to make the selection process more open, which Rudd himself lauded on Twitter last year. All 11 official candidates have participated in the informal dialogues, and Rudd's absence may be viewed negatively, especially since two of the 15 states on the Council (New Zealand and Uruguay) are members of the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group, which is actively pushing for a more transparent and inclusive process for selecting the next SG.

Looking ahead

Technically, there is no deadline for entering the race. Assuming Rudd gets a member state to nominate him (traditionally his own but it isn't required), there are still several scenarios for how the next few months might play out for him:

  1. Rudd could still jump in sometime before the Council starts its formal consultations. In this scenario, it's unclear whether the President of the General Assembly would schedule a third round of interviews just for him (and any other stragglers). The joint letter issued by the presidents of the Council and the General Assembly late last year states that opportunities for informal dialogues or meetings may continue throughout the selection process.
  2. Assuming the Council conducts several rounds of straw polls as it has in the past, Rudd could wait to see how the initial polls play out and jump in if the current candidates fail to garner the required support. The timing and process for this year is still under discussion. In the 2006 race, the Council conducted initial polls on 25 July, 14 September, and 28 September.
  3. If the first few rounds of balloting are inconclusive, Rudd could also wait until after the Council switches to color-coded ballots, which differentiate between permanent and non-permanent members, thus highlighting potential vetoes. In 2006, the Council held a color-coded ballot on 2 October.
  4. Rudd could hold off from a formal nomination completely and hope that the Council instead comes to him looking for a compromise candidate. There's precedent for this, but it's less likely in this new era of SG race transparency.
  5. Finally Rudd could decide at any of these points that the risk of losing is too great and start considering new career options.

With the Council expected to start consultations by late July, we (and Kevin Rudd) don't have too long to wait.

Photo: Flickr/TED Conference