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IMO leadership race wide open as China and Finland vie for power

No clear stand-out candidate as the final shortlist of candidates to take over as the next IMO secretary general is revealed

China and Finland have entered the leadership battle at the IMO, skewing previous odds that suggested Panama was the country to beat. A fierce election campaign and period of political horse trading will now kick off as candidates vie for votes

THE race for the top diplomatic job in shipping is about to kick off in earnest with seven candidates vying for the post of International Maritime Organization secretary-general.

While most of the candidates were known before the March 31 deadline for submissions, two surprise late entries came in from China and Finland. 

The presence of a European Union member state and China on the final shortlist has radically changed the nature of the campaign, which Panama’s Arsenio Dominguez had been regarded as the favourite to win. 

China’s bid comes as Beijing is seeking increased influence inside UN agencies. A swift and well-funded campaign backing the previously low-profile candidate Zhang Xiaojie is expected to kick off immediately. 

Until last year, China had been the only country to lead more than one UN specialised agency, heading the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Telecommunication Union. China’s Fang Liu also acted as secretary general of the IMO’s sister body the International Civil Aviation Organization from 2015-2021.

However, China, along with Russia, has secured the lowest number of executive leadership posts among the permanent, and aspiring permanent members of the UN Security Council — a power imbalance that Beijing is actively seeking to address. 

IMO insiders anticipate that China will “be putting some serious muscle behind the bid,” which is expected to spark a flurry of bi-lateral meetings among member states as political horse trading starts this week. 

China will not, however, have a clear run at the position — the European votes remain one of the key deciding factors in the race to elect the next secretary general.

Finland’s last-minute bid has the potential to win a significant backing from EU member states. However, Türkiye is being viewed as an increasingly strong option, which has the potential to split the European vote and win support from influential flag states, further hurting Panama’s prospects.  

While Finland is likely to draw upon European support, the EU is not bound to vote as a bloc and Türkiye is understood to be campaigning strongly in Europe.

Greece has already stated that it would support Türkiye’s bid in return for support in a bid by Greece to become one of the non-permanent rotating members of the UN Security Council.

Voting will be conducted in stages, eliminating the candidate with the least support at each stage. That leaves the possibility that the victor between Finland and Türkiye could theoretically consolidate a significant bloc of support if allegiances were directly transferred.

While Cyprus had been expected to field a candidate, Lloyd’s List understands that diplomats made the call to pull out of the race shortly before the official deadline closed at midnight on Friday. 

Denmark had also been considering joining but did not appear on the final list.

The publication of the final shortlist confirmed that former World Maritime University president and International Labour Organization official Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry would enter the race as Dominica’s candidate.

In her seven years at the WMU, where she became both the first female president and the first university head from a developing nation, Dr Doumbia-Henry has proven to be an influential figure in the maritime world, and an outspoken critic of the industry’s performance regarding decarbonisation, seafarers’ rights and gender equality.

Similarly, Kenya’s candidate Nancy Karigithu has won significant personal backing among IMO insiders as a candidate who understands how to navigate the IMO structures effectively.

Despite their personal reputations, though, both Ms Karigithu and Dr Doumbia-Henry have been cast as outside bets by seasoned IMO insiders, who suggest that they will both likely struggle to compete against strong campaigning from well-funded member states willing to engage in heavyweight political lobbying. 

Securing an IMO secretary general to oversee the implementation of shipping’s global decarbonisation strategy is seen as a political priority by several member states. 

While the ‘SG’ position requires complete independence from the candidate’s home state, the race will ultimately determine the leadership style and priorities being established within the IMO. 

Although the IMO has suffered from being a relatively low-profile UN specialised agency, key issues around decarbonisation, securing supply chains and well as diplomatically sensitive battles over trade routes like the Arctic, are likely to see the IMO become increasingly politicised over the next eight-year tenure of whoever takes over as the next secretary-general.

Governments are therefore keen to ensure that the right candidate lands the influential position and the election campaign will now kick off in earnest, with governments funding election campaigns due to begin this week.

More significantly, the political horse trading in the search for votes will also now begin. Governments will be keen to see what trades are on offer before making a final decision on votes. 

A series of votes will take eliminate the weakest candidates through the campaign and the winner will need a 21-vote margin to secure the position. 

The election will take place at the IMO headquarters on Tuesday July 18. Following the election in July 2023, the decision of the council will be submitted to the 33rd session of the assembly of the IMO in late 2023. The assembly will be invited to approve the appointment.  

The elected secretary-general will take office on January 1, 2024.  


The shortlisted candidates are:

  • Moin Uddin Ahmed (Republic of Bangladesh)

  • Suat Hayri Aka (Republic of Türkiye) 

  • Arsenio Antonio Dominguez Velasco (Republic of Panama) 

  • Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry (Commonwealth of Dominica) 

  • Nancy Karigithu (Republic of Kenya)

  • Minna Kivimäki (Finland)

  •  Zhang Xiaojie (China)

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