WTO leadership race enters final straight

The race to lead the World Trade Organisation, pitting Mexico against Brazil, should be wrapped up by May 7, the senior diplomat leading the process said Friday.

Pakistan's ambassador Shahid Bashir, who runs the WTO's governing General Council, told a meeting of its 159 member states that he would launch a final round of talks next week.

"These consultations will begin on Wednesday afternoon, 1 May, and continue through midday, Tuesday 7 May," Bashir said.

Mexico's candidate is 62-year-old economist Herminio Blanco, well-known in global commerce for negotiating the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, who now runs a trade consultancy.

Brazil's candidate is the country's WTO ambassador Roberto Azevedo, 55.

Bashir said a full WTO session was due on May 8, allowing the winner to be announced sooner than anticipated.

He had previously said he expected to have the name of the successor to the WTO's current director general, Frenchman Pascal Lamy, by May 31.

Lamy, a former European Union trade chief, ends his second four-year term on September 1.

The post of WTO leader -- whose main task is to revive stalled global trade talks -- is not formally elected.

But unlike similar international organisations such as the various arms of the United Nations, whose chiefs are nominated, the WTO picks its leader by consensus.

Bashir, along with counterparts from Canada and Sweden, has spent recent weeks sounding out WTO nations to assess which candidates were likely to muster the most support.

Blanco and Azevedo emerged from an initial field of nine -- unprecedented in the WTO's 18-year history -- which was already cut to five on April 12.

Those who fell at the first hurdle were from Kenya, Ghana, Jordan and Costa Rica, while Indonesia, South Korea and New Zealand dropped out when the second round wound up on Thursday.

"The results that flowed from our consultations in this second round are clear and unambiguous," Bashir said.

All the candidates spent months trying to drum up backing from as many countries as possible.

In a statement Friday, the Mexican government underlined Blanco's "broad support" from "all geographic regions, and from developed, developing and least-developed countries".

The rules were brought in after an ugly 1999 race which led to New Zealand and Thailand splitting the post, before Lamy won the 2005 contest.

The WTO's two previous chiefs were Irish and Italian, and with France having followed Thailand, developing countries have insisted it is time for them to get the top job for a full term.

The stated goal of the WTO's "Doha round" of talks -- launched at a summit in Qatar in 2001 -- is to harness global commerce to develop poorer economies.

The negotiations have repeatedly faltered in the face of obstacles set in particular by China, the European Union, India and the United States.

Indonesia's unsuccessful candidate, former trade minister Mari Pangestu, whose country is due to host the WTO's next summit at the end of this year, said nations needed to focus.

"Indonesia urges all WTO members to exercise their full political will and committment to achieve a successful outcome and regain momentum," she said in a statement Friday, adding the new leader should "revitalise the organisation as the premier institution of global governance in trade."

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.

With the Doha round barely moving, the focus has shifted to regional and bilateral deals, such as a planned trans-Atlantic trade pact between the US and EU.

Supporters of a WTO-wide deal warn that such accords can create conflicting trade rules and thereby fail to serve global commerce.

Mexico's WTO ambassador Franco de Mateo said Blanco "knows where this organisation should move so as not to become irrelevant."

"His first order of the day is to complete the Doha round," he told reporters.