By coincidence, the UN and the USA came to ‘elect’ their respective leaders, Antonio Guterres and Donald Trump, at the same time. In both cases, there was not much of an election if the term is meant to designate the selection of a political person through the means of fair competition and general elections in which the will of all the people is properly translated into votes. In the USA, many voters, especially African Americans and from minorities, were disenfranchised on more than hollow grounds before the elections with the effect of low voter turnout in poor areas, and the popular vote was, to say the least, in blatant contradiction to the electoral college vote. The problem with the popular vs. electoral college vote is not so much that there are two electoral mechanisms, for this is, actually, quite common in many democracies; the problem is that these two institutions are not linked to each other or even coordinated in any way. The electoral college vote does not reflect the demographics of present-day USA and its demographic bias reduces particularly the vote of African Americans, and there is no obligation whatsoever for Great Electors to take the popular vote into account. Additionally, the election took place in a highly loaded atmosphere with incessant threats of violence from the Trump side, and a continuous flow of fake news, propaganda and extremely aggressive trolling. The US elections did not only reflect the deep divisions running through the country but also the fragility of institutions that rely heavily on unwritten norms of civility, respect and dialogue.
Compared to the spectacle of the US elections, Antonio Guterres’ appointment as Secretary-General of the United Nations appeared as a rather civilized yet highly staged, hypocritical and fundamentally undemocratic process. But then, the UN does not pretend to be the oldest modern democracy. It actually not even pretends to be democratic, at least not in the modern sense of the word. The Secretary-General is chosen by a mixture of backroom bargaining and ballot by the Security Council members. It effectively represents the smallest common denominator of the preferences of the five permanent members of the Council because preferences, choices and rankings of all selectors will never match up, and it is mathematically impossible that any candidate would ever get a clear majority (especially not if there are more candidates than selectors; this is called the Condorcet voting paradox and is also behind the IOC’s absurd choices of Olympic cities).
The Secretary-General is also not the leader of a world government despite conspiracy theories that claim the contrary. The Secretary General of the United Nations is the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the UN yet with large leeway for advocacy and the potential of an important diplomatic role in the world. Whether the Secretary-General really takes up this later role, for instance by independently bringing matters of world peace onto the agenda of the Security Council, depends entirely on his stature. Secretary-Generals like Dag Hammarskjöld, Xavier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali or Kofi Annan interpreted their role largely and widely and engaged in numerous initiatives to bolster the role of the UN as peacemaker in the world; others like U Thant, Kurt Waldheim or Ban Ki-Moon made the UN almost entirely disappear from the world political scene.
It remains to be seen in whose footsteps Guterres will step, Moon’s or Annan’s.