Nepal lost to Qatar in the stray poll held in the 53-strong Asian Group at the United Nations in New York on 25 February 2011 for the president of the General Assembly (PGA). Labeled as a close vote by the concerned officials, the defeat was a devastating blow to Nepal’s diplomacy and reputation.
Generally elected by consensus, the president is the leader of the GA for a year, September to September. This is not, however, the first time that there has been competition in the group for the coveted post. Several years back, Saudi Arabia had bagged the post through a similar ballot.
There is a saying in Nepali that can be roughly translated into something like this: You see the doorstep after you have defiled it. Indeed, we Nepalis have a strange habit of not preparing enough for anything to turn the situation in our favor beforehand and spending all the time and energy on analyzing what went wrong afterwards.
Interestingly, one mainstream newspaper refused to print an article that identified Nepal’s weaknesses in the campaign and that suggested measures to overcome them several days before the poll and asked the writer to send it after the election was lost. How prophetic! Anyway, another newspaper published the article.
But that might not have helped the campaign much because the suggestions were largely ignored to our peril. That aside, it would be useful to examine ex-post-facto what went wrong in order to educate us about what to do when we are faced with a similar challenge in the future. That is if we care to learn.
Indeed, we have squandered the once-in-a-life-time opportunity to hold the high post. Now the diplomatic and media commentariats have set themselves in full swing to examine every shard of the shattered hope.
In UN elections, country, candidate and campaign decide the outcome. As Nepal had no edge over Qatar in terms of the country and the candidate, campaign was the only hope for Nepal to win the high chair. As a country, Nepal – a least developed nation, which has just come out of conflict, which does not have a constitution yet, and which does not have a proper government for almost 8 months by now – was no match to Qatar, which has been a stable and prosperous state.
Yet logic favored Nepal. The country was an older member of the UN, had contributed several thousand troops to UN peacekeeping operations and had announced her candidature for PGA much before Qatar, which was seeking to succeed Bahrain that had held PGA from the Asian Group five years ago. But lobby was on Qatar’s side. Islamic solidarity, the reputation of being home to Al-Jazeera and host to the World Cup in 2022, and the economic opportunities she offered other countries favored Qatar.
As both countries had fielded good and strong candidates, there was not much advantage on either side at the candidate level. Our man, Kul Chandra Gautam, assistant secretary general of the United Nations until recently, was a bright candidate. Nassir al-Nasser, his country’s permanent representative (PR) in New York since 1998, was a smart candidate with considerable political skills.
In UN votes, like in national elections, bright candidates do not make the right candidates. You must have someone with political and people skills, not technocratic success, to get elected to PGA, which is a political post. I am not disparaging Gautam whom my successor and I campaigned hard to make under secretary general, because he was fit for promotion to that post.
Gautam chose the wrong bait from another perspective as well. He lacked the advantage of location and incumbency his competitor enjoyed. While he left New York a few years back, al-Nasser consistently hobnobbed with other ambassadors who were his constituency. This helped him breeze to easy victory in the poll.
It is a fallacy to believe that any former minister who spoke English well could have won the vote. But any sitting deputy prime minister or foreign minister unfit to become even deputy minister or our PR could have certainly done better due to their incumbency or location advantage over extraneous candidates.
Despite these disadvantages, Nepal could still have won PGA with the right campaign. But several factors worked against her. First, it was a blunder to withdraw Nepal’s candidature for the Economic and Social Council without seeking quid pro quo from Qatar, which was also a candidate for the same term. That was a sign of weakness, if not outright nervousness. You do not win vote by being timid.
Second, it was a mistake to rely only on true but old planks for election – our UN membership, our contribution to UN peacekeeping – and not to bring current political and economic issues that many countries shared to win support. We should have reached out more with proactive diplomacy. Countries respond better, when they find that we are prepared to champion the cause they hold dear.
Third, though he might have stronger reasons to be present in Kathmandu rather than in New York at the time of PGA elections, it looked to the outsiders totally inappropriate for the Nepali PR to be absent in New York on the eve and at the time of the crucial vote. The PR in New York, more than anyone else, could have changed the game if he had wanted.
I am saying this from my experience. When I was representing Nepal in the world body, from 2000-2004, the country was in a worse shape. The Maoist conflict was in its heights. The king was etching to increase his power and control. Political parties were agitating, and political instability was at its peak. But in those four years, we won 14 out of 17 elections with proactive diplomacy and vigorous campaigns, defeating even South Korea. We lost only three, because the candidatures were announced just days or weeks before the vote giving us no time to campaign.
This is why the defeat in the PGA election should be attributed more to weak diplomacy and inadequate campaign in New York than to anything else. This is not the first time Nepal has lost a major election due to weak campaign. In 2006, Nepal was trounced by Indonesia in the Security Council vote by 28 to 158. That time, we were defeated by the largest Muslim country; this time, we have been defeated by one of the smallest Muslim countries.
Interestingly, someone described the competition between Nepal and Qatar in terms of David and Goliath to justify our loss. But in this election, Goliath should have been Nepal, not Qatar, which has a population of the size of Pokhara or Biratnagar. Higher per capita income alone does not make for a nation stronger.
That said, we would not get anything by engaging in mutual recrimination over the spilt milk. But the loss of PGA ballot should make us wiser in selecting the posts we fight for, choosing the candidates for those posts, and investing our diplomatic strength to win future elections. This is what we should take from the blow it has given to our diplomacy and reputation.
February 27, 2011
(Published in Nepalnews.com on March 1, 2011)