GENEVA (AFP) - The World Trade Organisation is bracing for the start of the race to lead the body that polices the rules of global commerce, a unique contest in the often-opaque sphere of international diplomacy.
From Tuesday, the 158 WTO member states will start cutting a field of nine candidates for the post of director general, whose main task is to revive long-stalled talks on boosting international trade.
After two four-year terms for Frenchman Pascal Lamy - a former European Union trade chief - emerging nations aim to stake their claim on the top job which is vacant on September 1.
Mr Roberto Azevedo, currently Brazil's ambassador to the WTO, is seen as a favourite in diplomatic circles.
But another strong challenger is Indonesia's former trade minister Mari Pangestu, whose country is due to host the WTO's next summit at the end of this year - and who is one of three women in the race, a first for the organisation.
The others are: Mexico's Herminio Blanco Mendoza, Anabel Gonzalez of Costa Rica, South Korean Taeho Bark, Tim Groser of New Zealand, Jordan's Ahmad Hindawi, Alan Kyerematen of Ghana and Kenya's Amina Mohamed.
Unlike similar organisations such as the various arms of the United Nations, whose chiefs are nominated, the WTO elects its leader based on a consensus system, meaning any member can block the process.
In January the candidates set out their stall at the WTO's general council, which groups the member states, making 10-minute presentations before being quizzed by delegations.
Since then, they have been on the global campaign trail.
The current chairman of the general council, Pakistan's ambassador Shahid Bashir, will on Tuesday begin a week of meetings with representatives of all the member states to gauge their capitals' views.
He will work in a trio with his Canadian counterpart Jonathan Fried, who heads the WTO's disputes settlement body, and Sweden's Joakim Reiter, in charge of its trade policy review division.
The goal is to establish which candidates have the widest support, in an attempt to reduce the field from nine, a record number for a WTO leadership race.
The four least-popular candidates will be expected to withdraw by April 9, after which Mr Bashir's team is set to meet again to assess who is in and out of favour, paving the way for three more to pull out.
That will lead to a head-to-head contest, which Bashir says he expects to be complete by May 31.
Created in 1995, the WTO aims to advance global trade negotiations in a drive to spur growth by opening markets and removing trade barriers, including subsidies, excessive taxes and regulations.
Its so-called Doha Round of talks was launched in 2001, with the stated goal of harnessing global commerce to development in poorer nations, but has faltered in the face of obstacles set in particular by China, the EU, India and the United States.
The momentum has moved to regional and bilateral deals, such as a planned trans-Atlantic trade pact between the US and EU, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated by players including the US, Canada, Chile, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Supporters of a WTO-wide deal warn that regional and bilateral accords create a "spaghetti bowl" of sometimes conflicting trade rules and thereby fail to serve global commerce.