Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Can Helen Clark turn her situation around?

Helen Clark's bid for the job isn't looking good. Photo / AP
Helen Clark's bid for the job isn't looking good. Photo / AP

Helen Clark tweeted today "La lucha continua" - or "the struggle continues". It's her way of saying that, although the latest UN general secretary polling might have gone against her once again, she's staying in the race to fight on.

Clark's choice of political phrasing is interesting. The phrase "La lucha continua" was popularised by Che Guevara and is normally used as an anti-Establishment rallying slogan. It's well-used by leftist activists in the developing world, particularly in an anti-imperialist context. So is her choice of words a throwaway use of political language or a sign that Clark's UN campaign is shifting leftwards?

Helen Clark - the anti-Establishment candidate

Helen Clark has long been accused of being an Establishment politician. Her time in New Zealand politics and government was more characterised by moderate centrism and managerial leadership than by any sense of revolutionary activism. Indeed, her only strong record of turning things upside down was when as a younger Cabinet minister she went along with Roger Douglas in his neoliberal reforms.

But we're seeing a more radical Helen Clark at the moment - or at least one presenting herself as such. Even early in the campaign, Clark was keen to distance herself from her more mainstream background. When questioned in New York about her being the "establishment candidate" for secretary-general, she responded like this: "I have never been an establishment candidate for anything.... I have come from the outside of everything I have done from a rural background to urban settings; as a woman breaking into a man's world which was politics in my country; as a woman becoming the first elected prime minister" - see the Australian newspaper's Helen Clark swats UN 'establishment' tag.

Others disagree - see, for example, Phil Duncan's UN leadership contest: Helen Clark is the ultra-establishment candidate and Helen Clark's UN bid: Maori Party leaders note the would-be empress has no clothes. Duncan says: "Helen Clark spent about ten years wheedling her way into the NZ establishment and then was an ultra-loyal part of that establishment for the next thirty years. Now she aspires to be a big player in the global imperialist establishment."

And, of course, the Maori Party has recently expressed its own discontent with Helen Clark's politics - this is best elaborated on in Morgan Godfery's article, On opposition to Helen Clark's UN bid. But an interesting counter to this is put together by Tim Watkin - see: Context is king: Why Clark's race record is so complex.

Nonetheless, Clark is searching for a way forward in her UN campaign, and it might be that her best chance is to gain the backing of developing and non-Western countries. This could help her become the "compromise candidate" who ends up winning if the current front-runners are vetoed by countries from the Permanent Five on the Security Council. At the moment Clark is seen more as a Western candidate, with relatively good relations with the Western capitals. Therefore she may need to now position herself as a more anti-Establishment outsider in order to stay in the race.

Helen Clark UN secretary-general contest cartoon by Guy Body.
Helen Clark UN secretary-general contest cartoon by Guy Body.

It's not surprising that Clark has also come out as a fan of the Pope, which could help endear her to developing Catholic countries, as well as those in favour of the current Pope's more radical politics - see Claire Trevett's The agnostic and the Pope - Helen Clark praises Pope Francis' 'tremendous goodness'.

Clark is certainly being talked up as the "reform candidate". Even National Party politicians are selling her like this. Newshub is reporting that Cabinet minister Paula Bennett "says if Ms Clark doesn't win, it'll be because the Security Council members are afraid she'll shake things up too much" - see: Dan Satherley's Friends and rivals urge Clark to stay in UN race. Bennett says: "You just know it from her past - she's a strong woman who knows what she wants and cares about this stuff, so I just don't think they're up for that."

In the NBR, editor Nevil Gibson says that Clark is campaigning as "a change manager", and cites former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, as seeing such a platform as potentially powerful: "According to Mr Bolton, some candidates are favoured because they are opposed to US global dominance and see the UN as a potential 'thorn in America's side'." - see: After the UN, where does Helen Clark go? (paywalled).

According to the Southland Times, Clark has become identified by her reform agenda in the race: "She hasn't plainly said her agenda includes radical restructuring of this inner sanctum, which has powers of veto that have long proven paralysing for coherent and timely action. But there are strong implications in her comments that, in any organisation, change is hard because it comes up against 'people who have a vested interest in the way things are'. Her reformist agenda has hammered the message that the world is not what it was in 1945" - see: Helen Clark's UN knockback has three shabby possible explanations; one good one.

But the editorial says that Clark's reform agenda may be behind her poor showing in the race, because it could be "that some of the security council's five permanent members detect real commitment and capacity behind her talk of reforming the UN and don't like what it might mean for their influence."

Helen Clark speaks during an interview in New York. Photo / AP
Helen Clark speaks during an interview in New York. Photo / AP

Political agendas aside, Clark's gender could be a helpful factor, with many pointing out the need to have a female leader for a change, including current secretary-general Ban Ki-moon who says it's "high time" for a woman in his role - see Sam Sachdeva's UN secretary-general says a woman should replace him - will this help Helen Clark?.

Others agree. Barry Soper says "If a male is elected to the job it'd be a great pity" - see: United Nations needs a woman leader. And Claire Trevett reports that "The woman heading a campaign for a woman Secretary General of the United Nations says the poor results for female candidates including Helen Clark in straw polls reflected an "old boy network" in the Security Council" - see: UN Secretary-General ballots show 'old boy network' still goes on.

The latest straw poll result - should Clark pull out of the race?

Today's UN indicative poll result shows that Clark's campaign is still failing - see the Herald's news report, Helen Clark polls the same in latest United Nations Secretary General vote. The most insightful commentary about the latest result is Tracy Watkins' UN Sec-Gen vote: Helen Clark in or out?.

Watkins says: "If the vote was by popular choice, Clark would have been a front-runner. Her bid for the top job has had a huge head of steam on social media and elsewhere, thanks to her high visibility on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. Clark has been the flag-bearer for the push to appoint a woman secretary general for the first time in the UN's 70-year history. And she is also seen as representative of the mood among the wider UN membership to decide the next secretary-general on competency."

Helen Clark and the UN debate for candidates for Secretary-General. Cartoon by Rod Emmerson.
Helen Clark and the UN debate for candidates for Secretary-General. Cartoon by Rod Emmerson.

So should Clark pull out? Previously, her colleague David Shearer has stated he believes this would be the right course of action for her, saying "I think she's going to have to make that call herself, we'll get to the point where that (career damage) might be a factor" - see Newshub's Helen Clark's UN bid could damage her - Shearer.

Blogger David Farrar says today that she should go: "I can't see a path forward for Clark, and think it is time for her to pull out. I suspect Figueres and Gherman will withdraw which would leave Clark at the bottom of the pack" - see: Clark 8th out of 10.

But there is certainly still a chance of Clark coming "through the middle" to win the contest, and Audrey Young outlines how this could happen. She argues that "Clark may not be the favourite candidate of many voting countries but she could be an acceptable compromise countries want to keep around as insurance in case a consensus candidate cannot be found" - see: Helen Clark won't quit UN Secretary General contest lightly.

So which countries might favour Clark? And is she acceptable to the US? According to Audrey Young, "Though its preferred candidate is known to be the Argentine Susana Malcorra, it is not clear whether the US will be neutral on Clark or oppose her", and "Clark does not have an anti-American record; when she was Prime Minister, she committed New Zealand's SAS to Afghanistan in the wake of September 11" - see: Staying in mix Clark's best chance to lead UN.

Young also points out that "China has no reason to oppose Clark, and, given her social democratic credentials, and her role in securing its first free trade deal, has every reason to support and promote her." And ultimately if Clark can stay in the race, Young says that Russia might also end up agreeing to her.

John Key also argues this, saying: "If the Russians ultimately back someone much harder and the Americans go 'no, that person's unacceptable' and veto them and then the Americans back someone a bit harder that's not Helen and the Russians go 'no', she could come in the middle as the compromise candidate" - see Dan Satherley's 'Wasting time' trying to get Russia's support for Clark - Key.

This article also reports that Key wants to put pressure on allies in the Permanent Five "to put pressure on Russia to not play hardball" by vetoing Clark. And Labour deputy leader Annette King is reported as believing Clark still has a "50-50" chance of winning.

Some say that Clark will ultimately fall out of the race via the veto process, but today Tracy Watkins says: "the New Zealand camp believe the votes against Clark are purely tactical at this stage and don't kill her chances off just yet. Candidates who should be more worried about the veto are the Argentinian, Susana Malcorra ,and Bulgaria's Irina Bokova. Both are polling higher than Clark but are expected to be vetoed in later rounds - Malcorra because she is backed by the US, and because of Argentina's position on the Falkland Islands, and Bokova, because she is backed by Russia. Even the consistent favourite, Portugal's Antonio Gueterres, is now picking up opposition, and could also face a veto if the Russians decide to stick to their guns on it being Eastern Europe's turn to head the UN" - see: Helen Clark unlikely to pull out of next vote on UN Secretary General race.

New Zealand's campaign for Clark

The New Zealand Government has put a lot of resources, energy, and political capital into backing Clark's campaign. And now the Prime Minister says they'll do more - see Audrey Young's John Key will press Obama again if Helen Clark survives next UN straw poll.

But is the Government actually doing too much? Tracy Watkins reports that "As a temporary member of the Security Council, New Zealand is believed to have used its vote during the last straw poll to oppose Guterres, largely as a spoiling tactic, though the Government refuses to say" - see: UN Sec-Gen vote: Helen Clark in or out?. If that is the case, such underhand actions would go against Clark's campaign for reform and transparency in the UN.

Of course New Zealand's campaigning position is complicated by its membership of the Council, and questions are being asked about whether the country is using it's privileged position to boost Clark's chances - see RNZ's No pulling punches to support Clark - Key.

Stacey Kirk also asked about this: "A thought is niggling away in the minds of certain groups in New York. No one can point to anything solid, but the question has been lingering: Has New Zealand been playing a little soft on the UN Security Council, since Clark stepped into the battle dome to become Secretary General?" - see: Has New Zealand held back on the Security Council because of Helen Clark?. And she cites a recent case where a UN reform agenda wasn't strongly backed by New Zealand, allegedly because of Helen Clark's role in the campaign for secretary general.

And has New Zealand's time on the Security Council been worth it anyhow? Stacey Kirk reports on the views of "New Zealand's man at the UN", Gerard van Bohemen, who "questions whether New Zealand's contribution has made any difference to the lives of people living in war-torn and corrupt countries" - see: NZ has made waves on the UN Security Council, but has it made a difference?. See also Kirk's article, The scale of the Security Council - It does more than you think.

Finally, a win by Helen Clark is being sold as a "win for New Zealand" as if it's the Olympic games. But how much good would a Helen Clark leadership really do for the country? Not much according to Sam Gribben - see: Ask not what the Maori Party can do for Helen Clark.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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