South Korea's Foreign Minister and a senior U.N. official from India have emerged as early front-runners in the contest to become the world body's next secretary-general.
Fifteen ambassadors filed into a room just off the Security Council chambers Monday to begin whittling down the field of Secretary-General hopefuls. Behind closed doors, each of the envoys received a paper ballot with the names of four potential candidates. All four were men from Asia, since according to U.N. tradition, it is Asia's turn to have a secretary-general. Beside each name were three boxes, one marked "encourage", the second "discourage", and the third labeled, "no opinion."
Results of this informal straw poll were supposed to be secret. But within minutes, the tally was on newswires around the world.
Of the four candidates, South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon had the best score. Ban, a career diplomat who once served at South Korea's U.N. mission, received 12 "encourages", one "discourage", and two "no opinions". That result instantly installed him as the early front-runner to become the world's diplomat-in-chief.
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Public Information Shashi Tharoor came in second. Tharoor, a British-born Indian, received 10 "encourages", two "discourages" and three "no opinions".
Finishing far back were Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and former U.N. disarmament official Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka.
Veteran U.N. watcher and Columbia University Professor Edward Luck says even though the results are not definitive, the two trailing candidates have been effectively eliminated.
"It's an indication that this is not a promising quest," he said. "The Thai candidate had been campaigning for more than a year. And I think Dhanapala something similar. They're obviously not catching on and they should find a way to acknowledge that gracefully and go on to other pursuits."
While the results were good news for the two front-runners, Professor Luck and others caution that it is by no means certain one of them will get the job. He says history shows that early entries rarely end up in the secretary-general's chair. He expects other candidates will soon emerge, possibly including some from outside Asia.
"First we'll see a couple more Asian candidates appear," said Mr. Luck. "And if there's another round of straw polling and they don't seem to be catching on, and two more promising candidates aren't moving in the right direction, that is if they don't do better than they did yesterday, then I would assume people would begin to think about candidates from other parts of the world."
The U.S. ambassador at the U.N., John Bolton, gave no hint of Washington's preferences. He said any indication from one of the Security Council's permanent members at this stage could be the kiss of death. But he suggested that it might be time for other candidates to enter the fray.
"The individual candidates who have declared now have to examine those results and decide what their next step is, and others who have been considering whether to become candidates can look at the results and decide whether they will now enter the race. Those are all decisions up to them," said Mr. Bolton.
Professor Luck says the current deep divisions among Security Council members might complicate effort to reach agreement on a candidate. He says in the end, the choice may boil down to someone who is acceptable to both the United States and the major Asian powers on the Council, China and Japan.
"One axis we ought to look at is between China and the U.S. If they could agree on a candidate that wouldn't cause problems with Japan, that person would certainly have a lot of momentum," added Mr. Luck. "That puts the U.S. in an interesting position because it has the ear of both countries, and if China and the U.S. could work out a candidate Japan would not object to, that candidate would have a lot of momentum. That's worth watching."
More candidates are almost certain to join the contest. No one else has formally announced, but the U.N. corridors are buzzing with possibilities. The names heard most often are the former Singaporean prime minister Goh Chok Tong and Jordan's U.N. Ambassador, Prince Zeid al-Hussein.
Diplomats say the selection process is likely to slow during August, when many ambassadors are away. But it will pick up in September, when world leaders gather in New York for the annual General Assembly debate.
Ambassador Bolton has expressed hope that the process could be completed by September, giving the next secretary-general a transition period with the outgoing chief, Kofi Annan. But many diplomatic analysts predict the process may take much longer, given the deep divisions among world powers on critical issues.