Portugal's Guterres leads race for U.N. chief after fifth ballot

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), arrives for a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File photo

By Michelle Nichols UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres leads the race to become the next United Nations Secretary-General after a fifth U.N. Security Council secret ballot on Monday, diplomats said. The 15-member council cast a ballot for each of the remaining nine candidates with the choices of: encourage, discourage or no opinion. Guterres received 12 encourage, two discourage and one no opinion, diplomats said. Guterres, who was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, also won the other four rounds. The council's secret ballots will continue until there is consensus on a candidate to replace U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who steps down at the end of 2016 after serving two five-year terms. The council will then formally recommend the candidate to the 193-member General Assembly for election. The next secret ballot is scheduled for Oct. 5, when the ballots cast by the five veto powers - the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia - will be a different color from the votes of the other 10 council members, though they remain anonymous. This allows candidates to see if they could be facing a veto. While the Security Council would like to choose a candidate by consensus, technically nine votes in favor and no vetoes is all that is needed for a candidate to be recommended. After Monday's vote, Guterres was the only candidate to obtain more than nine votes. The next ballot will reveal whether either of the two discourage votes he has received was cast by a veto power. Former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic came in second with eight encourage, six discourage and one no opinion, while Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak was third with eight encourage and seven discourage. Former Slovenian President Danilo Turk and Argentinian Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra tied for fourth on Monday, followed by Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who is director-general of U.N. cultural organization UNESCO. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who heads the U.N. Development Program, and former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim tied for sixth, while Moldova's former Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman came in last. Bulgaria said earlier this month it would assess Bokova's candidacy after Monday's vote if she did not come first of second amid speculation the country might instead put forward EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva for the job. There is no deadline for candidates to enter the race. Civil society groups and nearly a third of the 193 U.N. member states, led by Colombia, have pushed for the first woman secretary-general. While hopes for a woman to lead the United Nations appear to have faded, the nomination of Georgieva could revive the effort, diplomats said. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Grant McCool)