High stakes on who will lead the World Meteorological Organization

Petteri Taalas, secretary general of World Meteorological Organization (WMO), arrives before calling for urgent action to counter threats on water and climate, during a press conference at WMO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 8 March 2022. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Elections for the Geneva-based institution’s top job are not expected to pit traditional geopolitical blocs against each other for a change. An Argentinian and a Chinese are the two top runners for now, but a last-minute surprise is not out of the question.

It is one of the rare United Nations organisations that has partly escaped sharp politicisation within its operations. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), located just a stone's throw from Lake Geneva, is set to elect its next secretary general in June, when Petteri Taalas, the Finn who has held the role since 2016, will end his second term. 

Four candidates have so far come forward to succeed him: Celeste Saulo, director of Argentina’s meteorological service; Wenjian Zhang, the Chinese deputy secretary general at WMO; Elena Manaenkova, a Russian-Swiss who is also deputy secretary general at WMO and Albert Martis, second vice-president of WMO. The election will take place on 1 June but could last an extra day if no decision is made. 

Exceptionally, the battle will not be one directly confronting geopolitical blocs. Current favourites are Saulo and Zhang, both considered as candidates from the Global South. Latin America and some of the European countries are expected to back the Argentine candidate. Some had come to believe that Petteri Taalas supported China's candidate. Although he had never said so explicitly, Taalas praised Zhang’s qualities during a trip to Beijing. Meanwhile, Manaenkova has hinted that she has the support of Moscow, a crippling factor amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The vote nonetheless appears highly uncertain. The election requires a qualified majority of two-thirds of WMO’s Congress, which may be difficult to achieve. Should any of the candidates fail to reach that bar, everything will be open. At an earlier WMO election without any frontrunners, Michel Jarraud of France ran at the last minute and was successfully elected as secretary general. This year, such a scenario cannot be excluded.

“It has even been suggested that Taalas himself could run again in the event of an impasse. But that would be problematic, even though he has a good track record and has led significant internal reforms within the organisation,” a Geneva-based diplomat said. “It would be ironic: it was Taalas who passed the two-term limit (for the secretary general’s position).”

The stakes of this election are no less important. If the WMO has resisted excessive politicisation by refusing to exclude Russia from the organisation, given its significant role there – the country provides almost two-thirds of global weather data – the future secretary general will have to ensure it stays that way. “He or she will have to ensure that the secretariat of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can continue to work calmly and independently,” the same diplomat added. 

The WMO provides essential meteorological data for agriculture as well as maritime navigation. The UN agency also plays a major role in collecting data on the planet's water resources, particularly fresh water. Its proper functioning is also crucial to the work of centralising warning systems, which help avoid the dramatic impact of severe climatic events.

Among the biggest challenges for the WMO’s future chief will be the budget of the organisation, which employs 280 staff, including 80 in the field. It will be incumbent upon the new leader to move away from the organisation’s model based mainly on contributions from member states towards one that brings in the private sector and development banks. 

“The candidate with the best relationship with such establishments will have the best luck,” a well-informed source explained.

This article was originally published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.

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