UNITED NATIONS (Oct 13): Years of campaigning for a seat at the world's "top table" come to a head this week when elections are held to the UN Security Council, which decides on such weighty matters as sanctions, war and peace.
Five seats are up for grabs in the 15-member Council, where the elected countries will join the five permanent powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- for a two-year stint.
For the contenders, a Council seat is the ultimate diplomatic prize, raising a country's profile several notches, boosting influence and providing knockoff benefits in bilateral ties.
Governments spend years lobbying for support with slick campaigns designed to appeal to key constituencies from the 193-nation General Assembly, which will cast ballots on Thursday to fill the five seats.
In this round, three of the five seats are all but decided after regional groups put forward their candidates, even though these countries still need to secure two thirds of the votes from the Assembly.
These will likely go to Angola, chosen by African nations, which will be making its debut at the Council; Venezuela, put forward by Latin American and Caribbean states; and Malaysia, picked by Asian countries.
The three are expected to take up the seats vacated by Argentina, Rwanda and South Korea.
For the remaining two seats, three countries are in the running -- Spain, Turkey and New Zealand -- in a race that is shaping up as too close to call.
The two elected countries will replace Australia and Luxembourg. The five other seats held by Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania and Nigeria will come up for election next year.
With the possible entry of Turkey and Malaysia, joining Chad and Jordan already on the Council, the top body will for the first time in its history have a record of four Muslim countries at the table.
- Worried about Venezuela -
Much attention has focused on Venezuela's likely entry to the Council, and the appointment of late president Hugo Chavez's equally-fiery daughter, Maria Gabriela, as deputy ambassador to the United Nations.
Human Rights Watch's UN director Philippe Bolopion said Venezuela's record of voting at the UN Human Rights Council gave cause for worry that the leftist regime will be "on the wrong side" of rights issues.
"Without question, they had one of the worst voting records. They were opposed to very important resolutions on Sri Lanka, Iran, Belarus," said Bolopion.
Geneva-based UN Watch director Hillel Neuer likened electing Venezuela to the Council to "making a pyromaniac into the fire chief," pointing to its support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad among other pariahs.
Turkey's possible entry is stirring debate over whether the NATO member and fierce opponent of Assad could help address crises in Syria, Iraq and the ever-thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One European diplomat said the round of elections will produce a "more difficult Council to work with" at a time when the world body is confronting multiple crises, from the jihadist offensive in Iraq and Syria to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Others, however, caution that the Council's agenda is still very much in the hands of the so-called P5 and that divisions over Syria, eastern Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain unchanged.
One of the most divisive issues remains Syria, where Russia has steadfastly opposed resolutions condemning the Assad regime, although it backed a measure on allowing UN humanitarian aid deliveries without Damascus's consent.
Bolopion singled out Australia and Luxembourg -- both outgoing non-permanent members -- as strong voices that helped break down divisions among the big powers on Syria and paved the way for the adoption of the humanitarian aid resolution.
- Global power -
As the most powerful body of the United Nations, the Security Council can impose sanctions on countries and individuals, refer suspects for war crimes prosecution, endorse peace accords and authorize the use of force.
It also oversees 16 peacekeeping missions in the world, with a budget of close to $8 billion.
New Zealand's former UN ambassador Colin Keating made the case bluntly that a seat on the Council generates payoffs for medium and small powers, not just in terms of prestige.
"You are seen sitting at the top table. The influence that that carries can be very significant when exporters need help," he said.
"When you want to raise something bilaterally, you get taken much more seriously. You get unparalleled political access."
Thursday's vote is carried out at the General Assembly by secret ballot and involves several rounds of voting with the five new members set to take up their seats on January 1.