UNITED NATIONS —
Two clear front-runners have emerged from the pack of 12 candidates for the next U.N. secretary-general, according to diplomats with knowledge of the secret proceedings.
Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres and Slovenia's former president, Danilo Turk, both garnered strong support from the U.N. Security Council's 15 members on their first informal ballots Thursday to select a new U.N. chief.
The council, which recommends a finalist to the General Assembly for approval, is likely to hold several rounds of votes before making a final decision. The winner will take over from Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 1, 2017.
Both front-runners have extensive U.N. experience, in addition to their political backgrounds.
Guterres, 67, was his country's prime minister from 1995-2002 and went on to become the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade, leaving the post last December. Under his leadership, the agency managed the largest refugee and migrant crisis since World War II.
U.N. Secretary General candidate Antonio Guterres, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivers his remarks in the United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber, April 12, 2016.
Turk, 64, of Slovenia, is a human rights lawyer who was his country's head of state from 2007 to 2012. Before that, he served as Slovenia's first U.N. ambassador and was the U.N. deputy political chief under Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Eastern Europe has never held the top U.N. post and has entered eight candidates in hopes of winning it. They had mixed results. Aside from Slovenia's Turk, who is in second place in the vote count, diplomats said Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, came in third, followed closely by Vuk Jeremic of Serbia and Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia.
At the bottom of the pack were the nominees from Montenegro, Moldova and Croatia.
There has been a push by more than 50 member states this year to select a woman to fill the top U.N. job. New Zealand's Helen Clark, who runs the U.N. Development Program, and Argentina's Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, placed in the middle of the group, while Costa Rica's Christiana Figueres landed in the bottom half.
Call for transparency
The results of the council's informal voting are not public. General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, who has shaken up the process this year by calling on governments to formally nominate their candidates and by holding public job interviews with them, took to social media to criticize the council for not making the poll results public.
General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, right, listens as former Slovenian President Danilo Turk, left, address questions from the 193-member General Assembly about his candidacy for U.N. Secretary General, April 13, 2016 at U.N. headquarters.
"In my view, limiting the communication to the fact that the informal straw poll has taken place without any further detail adds little value and does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency," he wrote on Twitter.
"We are not going to preview our position on the individual candidates," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters on her way into the vote. "But we made no secret of the fact that we're looking for somebody with great leadership skills, great management skills, someone who has a commitment to fairness and accountability, and who stays true to the founding principles of the United Nations."
France's U.N. envoy François Delattre compared the council's secret deliberations to the selection of the pope, "with the exception that the observers say there is no smoke, white or black." He added that the process is "critically important," and the council must make sure it picks the best candidate.
"It's about inspiring and projecting trust, and making sure that the community of nations recognizes itself in the future secretary-general," he said.