Race to lead OECD narrows to four candidates

Withdrawal of deputy head leaves two women and two men in running for the secretary general post

Cecilia Malmström (left), a Swedish politician looking for a fresh challenge
Cecilia Malmström (left), a Swedish politician looking for a fresh challenge, is one of the candidates to lead the OECD. Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
Cecilia Malmström (left), a Swedish politician looking for a fresh challenge, is one of the candidates to lead the OECD. Photograph: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
Mon 15 Feb 2021 01.00 EST

The race to lead the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), one of the world’s most influential multilateral organisations, has narrowed after the deputy head of the organisation withdrew from the race.

The exit of Ulrik Knudsen, who is a former Danish foreign minister, leaves four candidates for the secretary general post, including two women: the former Greek education secretary Anna Diamantopoulou and Cecilia Malmström, the Swedish EU trade commissioner who spent four years in Brexit talks with the UK.

Ángel Gurría, who has run the OECD since 2006, will step down later this year amid growing conflict over how fast to tackle climate change, a crackdown on tax havens and the role of China among the OECD’s 37 member countries, mostly in Europe and north America, though joined by Australia, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, Israel, Japan, and South Korea.

The Swiss candidate – Philipp Hildebrand

A former head of Switzerland’s central bank who quit in 2012 following an insider trading scandal, Hildebrand has close connections to the German leader, Angela Merkel, and the new Biden administration through his boss at fund manager BlackRock, the fabulously well-connected Larry Fink. A liberal working in an investment bank makes him the Keep Calm and Carry On candidate who is onside with the Washington consensus, which could be important after Chris Liddell, a former Trump aide, withdrew as US contender.

The Greek candidate – Anna Diamantopoulou

After a long career in both Greek and European politics – having worked on education, industrial policy, and social justice – Diamantopoulou is the centre-left candidate who talks about nitty gritty issues, focusing on digital transformation, green growth, reducing poverty and updating skills. She would get many votes if OECD members agreed with her mission to “soften this big conflict” with China. In the secretive voting process, which mimics the race for the papacy, her leftist views and long period in academia may have taken her too far from the political fray.

The Australian candidate – Mathias Cormann

Cormann resigned as Australia’s longest-serving finance minister following his nomination to be OECD secretary general. A free market conservative with a reputation for defending Australia’s mining interests and denying climate change, he would appear to be out of step with a progressive institution. But his disavowal of “sceptical” comments on the environment are married to an aggressive attitude on Chinese expansion to make him a frontrunner with countries looking for a tough operator ready to take on Beijing. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is among those to be wooed by Cormann, who grew up and lived in Belgium until his early 20s, following a costly European trip last November.

The Swedish candidate – Cecilia Malmström

An EU commissioner looking for a fresh challenge after almost 10 years in Brussels, Malmström was looking almost perfectly positioned to become the OECD’s first female leader until a few months ago. A centre-right politician (which as a Swede makes her not very rightwing in global terms) known for her tough negotiating style and knowledge of international issues, she has all the connections and experience an OECD boss could need. Her stumbling block has been an abrasive relationship with many EU government leaders and the US during trade talks.