Portugal's former prime minister Antonio Guterres topped the first informal poll to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next U.N. secretary-general on Jan. 1 followed by Slovenia's former president Danilo Turk.
Two diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the vote was secret, said three candidates had the same support for third place — Irina Bokova of Bulgaria who heads UNESCO, Serbia's former foreign minister Vuk Jeremic and former Macedonian foreign minister Srgjan Kerim.
The 15 council members decided not to reveal the results of their voting to "encourage," ''discourage," or express "no opinion" about the 12 candidates — unlike the informal "straw" polls 10 years ago, which were made public and led to Ban's election to the world's top diplomatic post.
But despite the council's efforts at secrecy, the results quickly leaked out.
By tradition, the job of secretary-general has rotated among regions and Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe have all held the top post. East European nations, including Russia, argue that they have never had a secretary-general and it is their turn. There has also never been a woman secretary-general and a group of 56 nations are campaigning for the first female U.N. chief.
Bokova got nine "encourage" votes, the highest number for a woman, the diplomats said. New Zealand's former prime minister Helen Clark was in fourth place with eight "encourage" votes.
Argentina's Foreign Minister Susanna Malcorra, a former chief-of-staff to Ban who was expected to be a leading contender, was behind Clark, they said.
Guterres, who was Portugal's center-left Socialist prime minister from 1995-2002 and served as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees until the end of last year, received 12 "encourage" votes and three "no opinion" votes, the diplomats said.
Portugal's Foreign Minister Augusto Santo Silva called the vote "an extremely positive result, given the great quality of the other candidates," telling the media in Washington "It gives a clear incentive to the candidature of Mr. Guterres and confirms that he's particularly qualified for the position of secretary-general."
Turk, who served as Slovenia's first U.N. ambassador from 1992-2000 and was the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs from 2000-2005, received 11 "encourage" votes, 2 "discourage" and two "no opinion," the diplomats said.
Turk tweeted: "Grateful for attention, understanding and encouragement of the UN member states and civil society. Great platform for the next rounds."
The diplomats said former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic received 11 "discourage" votes, the most of the 12 candidates.
The three other candidates at the bottom of the list were Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, the U.N. official who played a key role in shaping last December's historic agreement to fight climate change, former Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic, they said.
"We've never had 12 candidates before," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said before the vote. "We need to whittle it down to a reasonable number through the straw polls. That is what straw polls are for. I would encourage people who don't do so well to drop out of the race."
There is also a possibility that more candidates will enter the race because there is no deadline for nominations. At least one more, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is making a late bid and has requested that the Australian government formally nominate him.
According to the U.N. Charter, the secretary-general is chosen by the 193-member General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. In practice, this has meant that the council's five permanent members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — have veto power over the candidates.
The United States, Britain and France stressed Thursday that they want a strong secretary-general to lead the United Nations through turbulent times, but Russia and China haven't made clear what qualities are key for them.
"This could not be a more important job," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said as she headed into the council to vote. "And it could not be a more important time to choose the best possible leader for this organization on which so much depends and so many depend."
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre noted that some have compared the vote for U.N. secretary-general to the vote for a new pope to lead the Catholic church.
It's "critically important" to ensure that the process inspires trust and ensures that "we simply have the best candidate selected to become the world's number one diplomat," he said.
Another informal poll is expected to take place next week followed by several more in August, and possibly September.
France's Delattre said the Security Council's goal is to make a recommendation to the General Assembly in the fall.
Ten years ago, there were seven candidates to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general. In the final straw poll in early October 2006, Ban received 14 "encourage" votes, 1 "no opinion" and no "discourage" vote, and days later the Security Council nominated the former South Korean foreign minister by acclamation to succeed Annan. In 1996, Annan was vetoed by the French but after a few days of talks, France agreed to support him and he got the job.