World Trade Organization leadership race nears the finish line

The WTO's 'troika' led by David Walker of New Zealand will hold final talks with remaining member states on Tuesday. Photo: WTO

While all eyes are on the imminent US presidential election  another candidacy race closer to home is also nearing the finish line.  

The World Trade Organization will this week hold final talks in Geneva to determine which of the two remaining candidates - Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee - will become its next director-general.

On Tuesday, the WTO’s “troika” - the heads of its three highest bodies - will meet in person and virtually with the remaining member states still left to consult with. In these confidential sessions lasting 10 minutes, the country ambassadors are asked one question: who is your preferred choice?

This so-called consensus building process, which is unique to the organisation, means there is no casting of votes. Instead, General Council chair David Walker and his two co-facilitators assess which candidate is most likely to attract consensus among all 164 member states. In other words, where nobody says no, and everybody says yes.

‘An art, not science’. Building a consensus is no easy feat because it not only takes into account the number of preferences each contenders has, but also the breadth of support across different regions. One candidate may have, for example, the backing of more countries but in a more concentrated region.

The other may have less preferences but a broader spread across the world. There is also the balance of support between the developed, least developed, and developing countries to consider. “It’s an art, not a science,” said one official familiar with the process, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Once all these factors have been weighed up, the WTO will convene a meeting of all member countries which, if all goes smoothly, could take place by the end of the week. With politics running high, deliberations could take longer. However, an announcement on who will be the next leader of the WTO is expected by 7 November.

The politics of consensus. Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo are the only remaining contenders left in the race, out of an original shortlist of eight, to take the top seat left by predecessor Roberto Azavedo. The selected candidate will also be the first woman at the helm of the trade body in its 25-year history.

They will be tasked with reasserting the trade body’s role at a time when Covid-19 has upended international trade and multilateral cooperation - an essential condition for the exercise of its mandate - has lost favour with some of the world’s major powers.

There is a long list of thorny issues to solve: updating the WTO’s rulebook to reflect 21st century issues such as e-commerce and growing digital economy; fixing its paralysed trade dispute appeals system; disagreements between countries over how to address agricultural subsidies; not to mention the trade war between the US and China.

At this point in the process, there is no difference in the calibre of the two candidates. Both come equipped boasting stellar CVs. Okonja-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, spent much of her career at the World Bank, where she rose through the ranks to become managing director. She is also chair of the Geneva-based Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and would be the first director-general appointed from the African continent.

Yoo has a career spanning 25 years in trade and multilateral relations and was also in charge of WTO affairs in the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. More recently, she acted as Korea’s key Free Trade Agreement (FTA) strategist.

With little two differentiate the two candidates at this stage in terms of skills, politics comes into play. According to Bloomberg, the European Union’s 27-nation bloc is ready to endorse Okonjo-Iweala as part of its campaign to strengthen ties with Africa, while the US is leaning towards Yoo. But as long as the “doors” to those discussions remain tightly shut, predictions over who is the frontrunner is like aiming at a moving target and remains speculation.

Potential roadblocks ahead. 2020 is no ordinary year. The geopolitical backdrop has changed dramatically since 2013, when the last leadership race took place, and no outcome can be ruled out - including the risk that a member state blocks the consensus.  This is unheard of in the 25 years since the WTO was established.

And yet - there is a procedure in place should this happen. Where consensus is not possible, the WTO agreement allows for voting — a vote being won with a majority of the votes cast and on the basis of “one country, one vote”.

Until then, it is up to Walker, together with the heads of Trade Policy Review Body and the Dispute Settlement Body  - Harald Aspelund and  Dacio Castillo - to do everything in their power to avoid that outcome.