Portugal's former prime minister Antonio Guterres topped the third successive poll of candidates seeking to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next UN secretary-general, making him the clear front-runner for the job as the world's top diplomat, UN diplomats said Monday.
Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak was the big surprise of the informal vote — jumping to second place after finishing next to last in the second "straw" poll, said the diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because voting is supposed to be kept secret.
Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who heads UNESCO, and Serbia's former foreign minister Vuk Jeremic were tied for third place followed by Argentina's Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, the diplomats said.
By tradition, the job of secretary-general has rotated among regions. Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe have all held the post. East European nations, including Russia, argue that they have never had a secretary-general and it is their turn.
There has also never been a woman secretary-general and more than 50 nations are campaigning to elect the first female UN chief, along with many organizations.
Secretary-General Ban, whose term expires on Dec. 31, said earlier this month that after eight men "it's high time now" for a woman to head the United Nations.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told The Associated Press on Monday that there should be a woman secretary-general. "And you know what? The time will come."
But is this the time? "This is the big question," Churkin replied, laughing.
The secretary-general is chosen by the 193-member General Assembly on the recommendation of the 15-member Security Council. In practice, this has meant that the council's five permanent members — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — have veto power over the candidates.
In Monday's informal poll, council members voted whether to "encourage," ''discourage," or express "no opinion" about the 10 candidates — five men and five women.
No women has placed above third in any of the polls and Malcorra was quoted by the Argentine newspaper Clarin as saying that "there is still a biased vote against women" at the UN.
The results of Monday's poll quickly leaked.
General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft again criticized the Security Council for not releasing the vote, saying UN members who participated in question-and-answer sessions with every candidate for the first time this year expect a "new standard of openness and transparency."
Guterres, who was Portugal's center-left Socialist prime minister from 1995-2002 and UN High Commissioner for Refugees until the end of 2015, got 11 "encourage" votes, three "discourage" and one "no opinion" in Monday's poll. In the first "straw" poll he had no "discourage" votes, and in the second he had two.
Lajcak, a former European Union diplomat now serving his second stint as foreign minister, got nine "encourage" votes, five "discourage" and one "no opinion."
In sixth place was former Macedonian foreign minister Srgjan Kerim followed by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who heads the UN Development Program, and Slovenia's former president Danilo Turk.
Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman and Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, the UN official who played a key role in shaping last December's historic agreement to fight climate change, tied for last place. Each got two "encourage" votes, 12 "discourage" and one "no opinion."
Britain's UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft stressed that the straw polls should narrow the field.
He encouraged those with poor showings to assess how they can get the required minimum of nine "yes" votes and no vetoes, "and if that's a long way off then I think they should follow the two" candidates who have already dropped out. (**)