Impasse continues over WTO head choice

A consensus choice to replace Renato Ruggiero as WTO Director-General is yet to emerge, with the latest headcount indicating no change in relative support for the four candidates contesting the position.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: A new headcount of the preferences of members on the four candidates running for the job of the Director-General of the World Trade Organization showed on 1 March an impasse over a consensus choice.

In the briefings provided to the media from the General Council meeting (closed, as other WTO meetings are), the new headcount, based on the views of 118 delegations (as against 91 in the past), showed that there has been no change, since the last count, in the ranking order of the four candidates (on the basis of first preferences), with Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi registering 39, Morocco's Hassan Abouyoub 35, Canada's Roy MacLaren 23 and New Zealand's Mike Moore 21.

"Significant development"

One trade diplomat said later that while there had been no real change in the support and positions of the four candidates, the General Council chair, Amb. Ali Mchumo of Tanzania, was in effect committed to bringing to the notice of the membership any "significant development" in the views of members or support to individual candidates, and that a "veto" exercised by any member against one or more of the four would be a "significant development."

This would in effect make it more difficult for anyone to exercise a veto. In earlier selection processes, as over the choice of members of the Appellate Body, though the US had in fact used its veto to block various candidates, the way that process was handled in 1995 (by the then chair of the DSB from New Zealand), only the candidates cleared by the US were presented to the other members, with others thus invited to veto the individual choices.

The US has been known not to want anyone from the developing world as the WTO head, and to have been backing New Zealand's Moore, or, if he could not make it, would reluctantly prefer Canada's MacLaren.

But the US might not find it so easy to stand up and say "no" to any particular candidate or country - without incurring damage to its overall trade and other relationships with the country.

There have been reports again that the US has been dropping subtle hints that its choice was a "policy issue" and it was not against any "particular candidate", in the hope that Supachai and Abouyoub would drop out.

On 1 March, the US merely commented, on receiving the report on the latest count and preferences from Switzerland's Amb. William Rossier (who has been acting as facilitator), that the ranking and support represented the situation of that date.

At the Council, members received the Rossier report and agreed with Mchumo that the selection process should be completed by the end of the month, and that this should be a "final deadline".

Some countries like Egypt and Pakistan said, if necessary at that time, a vote should be taken to select a person, while others still expressed their preference for consensus.

While Supachai had lost one (with the UK switching to MacLaren) and Abouyoub had gained 12, their relative ranking had not changed, though Abouyoub and his supporters had hoped he would edge to the front.

However, on the basis of second preferences (of 74 of the 118), Moore (who has been the US' unannounced candidate all along) edged to the front with 32, Supachai was second with 23, Abouyoub third with 11 and MacLaren last with 8.

Rossier in his report said that the situation of Supachai and Abouyoub had not changed significantly since the 20 January count, and both continued to have a wide base. Also, the regional support for Abouyoub had increased and he had also won significant support in another region of the world (a reference to the expressed choice of some of the EU members).

As in January, he added, some delegations had stated that they would not be in a position to join automatically in a consensus on a candidate other than the one they had indicated as their first or second preference and would want to be consulted again in such an event.

However, Rossier said he would not deal with these replies in his report, since they would have to come into play further in the selection process.

"Extremely interesting"

Among the comments at the Council, Egypt's Amb. Zahran found the new report "extremely interesting" and said the expressions of first preferences should command greater attention. The two leading candidates, he stressed, came from developing countries, and two-thirds of the members who expressed views preferred a developing-country candidate. The process for a consensus choice should have a time-frame and if it did not succeed, there should be recourse to voting.

The comments of the US and the EC (where the EU members are divided, and there are also differences between them and the EC Trade Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan) suggested the two were keeping their options open. The US said the report provided the flexibility to build a consensus, and that the positions of candidates were those at this time.

Mexico said the "indicative" target date should be 12 March, and the General Council should meet at that time.

Pakistan said that 12 March should mark the end of the process to seek a consensus, and if no consensus was found by then, there should be a resort to voting. While consensus was important, the most important principle to be borne in mind was "democracy".

Jamaica fully supported the chairman's proposal and wanted a decision to be reached by the end of March. It deplored the fact that while the WTO provided for a secretariat and for the DG to head the secretariat, it did not seem to have any procedures for the appointment of the DG (presumably referring to the fact that it was the GATT 1947 decisions and practices that prevailed).

Malaysia, for the ASEAN, suggested the narrowing of the choice from among the four and efforts to build a consensus around the leading candidates. Japan wanted the process to be concluded as soon as possible, but definitely by the end of the month. (Third World Economics No. 204, 1-15 March 1999)

The above article was originally published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.