FEB 15 – The new prime minister, Jhala Nath Khanal, has many pressing challenges. He will have to maintain law and order, advance the peace process, get the new constitution written and revive the moribund economy. On foreign policy, Khanal has to foster good relations with neighbours and other countries, keep aid and trade flowing, and win the election for the president of the 66th session of the UN General Assembly.
At least tentative preparations for this one-in-a-life-time election have started, and Nepal’s candidate has left for a visit to several countries to garner support. That is good news. But the preparations have to be commensurate with the formidable challenge of winning this unusual vote so that Nepal does not suffer the thumping defeat she did in an equally important vote in 2006, in the upcoming UN election this summer.
It is rather extraordinary that this year the president will be chosen by secret ballot. Generally, UN member states choose the president by consensus for a session—September to September—based on rotation among five regional groups. The Asian Group, which has mostly offered a single candidate in the past, failed to agree on anyone this time. So Nepal and Qatar are in the running for the top post. Although the odds are stacked against Nepal, with a good strategy she can still win this ballot.
In UN elections, country, candidate and campaign determine the outcome. As a country, Qatar seems to have an advantage over Nepal on this one. The Gulf state enjoys political stability, growing wealth, a strategic location, Al-Jazeera television, and the recently awarded honour of hosting the World Cup in 2022. In contrast, Nepal has been politically unstable since democracy was restored in 1990 and far behind other countries economically.
Lobby and logic work on opposite sides in this election. Lobby favours Qatar, as she can count on support not only from most of the 54 Islamic states but also from those non-Muslim nations that have strategic and commercial interests in that Gulf emirate. Logically, Nepal has a stronger claim on the post, because she announced her candidature years before Qatar and because Bahrain, another Gulf state, had served as president of the Asian Group five years ago. Those countries that believe in sub-regional rotation are likely to support Nepal.
However, Nepal will have to play the logic card cautiously so it does not jeopardise the opportunity and welfare of the 300,000 Nepalis working in Qatar. What is more, in a political organisation like the UN, lobby often trumps logic.
Both countries have fielded competent candidates whom I know personally from my New York days. Nepal’s candidate, Kul Chandra Gautam, who has an MPA from Princeton, is a former deputy director of UNICEF at the level of assistant secretary-general of the UN. A diligent, low profile introvert and apolitical bureaucrat, he did not try to build political persona at work to launch a post-retirement career, as his UN colleagues were doing. After retirement, Gautam does not have a platform that could give him a competitive edge over his rival. The inconsequential advisory position given to him by the government is of little help.
His competitor, Nassir Abdelaziz al-Nasser, educated in Qatar and Lebanon, has been the permanent representative of his country to the UN in New York since 1998. A high profile extrovert endowed with tremendous people skills and political instincts, al-Nasser has been plotting a strategy, cultivating friendships and harnessing his country’s strengths to his advantage ever since Qatar announced candidature and more so after he became the candidate. His continued presence in New York is a benefit as well.
Lacking advantage at the country level and having no clear advantage at the candidate level, the only hope for Nepal to bag the GA presidency lies in an effective campaign. However, the current campaign spun around true but insufficient old mantras—that she is committed to the principles of the UN; that she has contributed troops to peacekeeping operations; that she has been a UN member since 1955—is not enough to convince countries as to why they should vote for Gautam and not for al-Nasser.
What Nepal needs is an agenda-based strategy that can change the dynamics in Nepal’s favour. The strategy must have political, economic, communication, personal, diplomatic, and shop floor components, carefully woven together into a holistic campaign. Countries tend to respond better, when they see that the candidate is prepared to champion the political aspirations and economic agenda they care about. Effective communication is essential to generate impact.
Key protagonists—the government, the candidate and Nepal’s ambassador to the UN in New York—must stay on message. While the government and ministers should do their best to promote Gautam’s candidature, the candidate himself and Nepal’s envoy in New York must play the lead role to bag the high post. Gautam should, as he has been doing now, meet representative of various countries and tell them not only what a great UN administrator he has been but also how he, if elected, plans to conduct the GA presidency and give them the basis to support him.
Nevertheless, the most crucial factor in winning this election would be the full and personal commitment of Nepal’s ambassador in New York.
I can say this from my experience. Within three months of my arrival in New York in 2000, I was confronted with the daunting Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elections. Nepal had lost her bid to ECOSOC in 1997 already. Not to repeat that failure, we had to reach out, become visible more than before, and harness the golden principle of mutual support: If you support them when they need, they will support you when you need.
It is in this context that the Nepali envoy in New York becomes most important cog in the UN election wheel. He can build support around a set of common agendas and mutual interests and, with the help of his mission colleagues, work the UN floor—swapping votes, spotting uncommitted members and helping them with their pet agendas. He can also get the support of those ambassadors who vote with their hearts—based on personal friendship and support to their agenda—and those who change their vote in the second round.
The current Nepali envoy enjoys the additional privilege of being chair of the least developed countries, under the rotational system worked out when I was New York. By pursuing active diplomacy, he can win the GA presidency and many more elections for Nepal. If adopted across Nepal’s diplomatic machinery, active diplomacy will force diplomats to spend more time advancing the country’s interest and less pulling each other down. Nepal does not have sufficient time to change her diplomatic culture before the GA president’s election this year.
But she can still formulate a new strategy with political and economic agendas and convey vigorously her commitment to implement it. This is the only way to save Nepal this time from the kind of ignominious defeat she suffered in the Security Council election of 2006 in which she got 28 votes to Indonesia’s 158 and to ensure that Kul Gautam becomes the next president of the General Assembly.
The outcome of this election will be a touchstone for the Khanal government’s foreign policy as well.
Posted on: 2011-02-15 09:11