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Portugal’s Guterres leads first-round vote for UN chief

Antonio Guterres, Portugal’s ex-prime minister who was the UN refugee chief for 10 years, lead the closely watched first straw poll vote Thursday to pick the next UN secretary-general, diplomats said.

Slovenia’s former president Danilo Turk came second in the secret vote by the UN Security Council to choose a successor to Ban Ki-moon.

“Guterres is the man to beat,” a Security Council diplomat told AFP. “He has done very well.”

The 15 ambassadors including those from the powerful five — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — each rated the candidates with ballots marked “encourage,” “discourage” or “no opinion.”

Guterres won the top score of 12 “encourage” votes, while Turk was close behind with 11 encouragements, according to diplomats. Turk received two “discourage” votes.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova of Bulgaria received nine encouragements as did Serbia’s ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic and Srgjan Kerim, Macedonia’s former foreign minister.

In a disappointing showing, New Zealand’s Helen Clark picked up eight encouragements and failed to break into the top five vote-getters, but diplomats cautioned that the race was far from over.

Clark, a former prime minister who heads the UN Development Programme, is the UN’s highest-ranking woman and has campaigned energetically for the top job.

There are currently 12 candidates in the race, six of them women, but diplomats expect some to withdraw following the result of the first round.

The secret vote followed a new, more open process that for the first time in UN history provided for hearings to allow candidates to present their pitch for the top job before the General Assembly.

Fluent in several languages, the 67-year-old Guterres impressed UN diplomats when he appeared at the hearings and he has earned praise for his handling of Europe’s refugee crisis as high commissioner.

“We think the results reflect very much the performance in the hearings,” said a council diplomat.

Turk, 64, was Slovenia’s president from 2007 to 2012 and also served as the country’s first UN ambassador in 1992 before his appointment as UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs.

Turk tweeted after the vote that he was “grateful for attention, understanding and encouragement of the UN member states and civil society”, adding that he now had a “great platform for the next rounds.”

– ‘Very, very strong men’ –

Council members are facing calls to pick the first female secretary-general after eight men in the job, and to give preference to a candidate from eastern Europe, the only region that has yet to be represented in the top post.

British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said “it is high time for a woman” but added that there were “very, very strong men” in the race and that Britain would not use its veto to block a man from winning the post.

For Britain, supporting a candidate from eastern Europe is “the least important criteria here,” he said.

US Ambassador Samantha Power said the United States would back a candidate with “great leadership and management skills.”

French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the best candidate to become the world’s number-one diplomat must have “leadership, diplomatic skills and multilingualism.”

“The next secretary-general will have to have the skills, decisiveness and vision to lead the organization in these testing, and troubled times,” he said.

Council members are expected to meet again, possibly as early as next week, for a second round of straw polls, with a final nominee expected to emerge by October.

Argentina’s Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, who served as Ban’s chief of staff, also failed to make a strong showing as did Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak.

Croatia’s former foreign minister Vesna Pusic received 11 discouragements from the council, the lowest score.

Moldova’s Natalia Gherman, Montenegro’s Igor Luksic and former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica were among the bottom tier.

After agreeing on a nominee, the council will ask the General Assembly to endorse the nominee, who will begin work on January 1.