Turkey’s Moment of Inflated Joy After a Seat Won at the UN

July 11, 2020
by Mehmet Çelik, published on 11 July 2020
Turkey’s Moment of Inflated Joy After a Seat Won at the UN

Ambassador Volkan Bozkır of Turkey has recently been elected as the 75th President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

The election of Turkey's candidate understandably created a climate of euphoria across the political spectrum in Turkey. Some even described it as a reflection of President Erdogan's popularity among world leaders and asserted that the election reaffirmed Turkey's "global power" status. President-elect Volkan Bozkır claimed that his election as the UNGA President meant the recognition of Turkey's international policies by all the countries in the world.

At first glance, the election indisputably attests to a diplomatic success story for Turkey's government. Garnering 178 ‘Yes’ votes in the election for the coveted position at the UN, the world's largest international organization with 193 member states, is no small feat. But there is another and often overlooked aspect here. For those who know how the UN system works and how the elections are conducted at the UN bodies, Bozkır's election is not as big affair as Turkey’s media sought to portray. It was a natural consequence of a mechanism set up by member states after a shared consensus.

The first thing to know is that the president of the UNGA is elected on the geographical rotation basis. In the UN system, for the sake of equitable representation and fair distribution of the leadership posts, member states are split up into five regional groups: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Caribbeans, West Europe and Others (WEOG). Turkey is a member of both Asia Group and WEOG, but regarded in the latter with respect to the elections.

These five groups take rotation for the Presidency of the UNGA. To put it simply, the former President was from Africa (Nigeria). Volkan Bozkır has been elected from the WEOG. The next presidents will be elected from Asia-Pacific in 2021 and the Eastern Europe Group in 2022. The following WEOG presidency of the UNGA will be in 2025. In other words, the UNGA is chaired by a WEOG member in the years ending with zero or five. Against this backdrop, the government’s presentation of the winning of a mostly symbolic post as a high-profile diplomatic victory does not correspond with the reality.

Second, Volkan Bozkır was the only contender for the post. No other country from the WEOG presented its candidacy for the UNGA Presidency. As an established rule, in the case of a single candidate, the UNGA President is elected by acclamation. Accordingly, a plenary session for Bozkır's election by acclamation had previously been scheduled for June 8th, 2020. But, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a silence procedure was used instead of an in-personal plenary. At this stage, three member states; Armenia, Greece and Cyprus broke the silence by raising objection for Turkey's bid, thus, making the vote obliged. Eventually, unlike previous elections with a single contestant, unanimity became unattainable and the ballot box was put before the delegations.

Despite being the sole competitor, Volkan Bozkır compared his election with Turkey's candidacy in 2008 for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, it was a tough competition in 2008 while there was no competition at all for Bozkır's UNGA Presidency bid.

Third and most importantly, 17 out of the total 29 WEOG members, that's to say almost all the major countries in the group, had already assumed this leadership previously. Also, three WEOG states (the U.S., the U.K. and France) are permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) which, in principle, do not nominate their candidacy for the UNGA Presidency but get Vice-Presidential posts. The remaining eight states that have not taken the post yet are Andorra, Austria, Israel, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Greece, one of which will assume the presidency in 2025.

Taken all together, Turkey's bid for the UNGA Presidency, if expressed in soccer terminology, was like a penalty kick without a goalie. In this respect, the Turkish government won such a symbolic post, if not strategic, with ease at a time when President Erdogan was desperate for a success story. Therefore, Erdogan will definitely exploit this as a "glorious triumph" on every occasion, particularly in domestic politics, in order to reinvigorate his fast-waning popular support.

Volkan Bozkır will assume the leadership of this UN body for a year. At this stage, how Turkey's term presidency will look like for a year is more important than whether Bozkır's election is a diplomatic victory or not. The UNGA Presidency, although Erdogan's officials portray it as the highest-ranking position in the UN, has no executive powers enjoyed by the UN Secretary-General. Hence, it would be entirely misleading to regard the election as the confirmation of confidence in Erdogan's leadership by the international community. Using the same analogy, one can interpret Turkey's failure to get a non-permanent seat at the UNSC in 2014 as the erosion of confidence and as an indication of the country’s melting popularity since 2008 when it won the same seat with 151 votes. Another dynamic that needs to be taken into consideration is that the electoral politics of the UN bodies and posts are not independent of the general course of international politics where countries engage with one another based on the navigation of their respective national interests. Since the UNGA post is rotated among countries every year, placing too much meaning into the election would be inflated and misplaced.

Put simply, Bozkır's election is some form of success, for sure, but not a huge glory.

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