PARIS – Ireland, whose economy has been among the worst hit by the global financial crisis, on Tuesday threw its support behind French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to become the next director of the International Monetary Fund.
The move comes as something of a surprise, given French-Irish tensions over the terms of Ireland's EU-IMF bailout.
Ireland's support adds to the growing European momentum for Lagarde to succeed her countryman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who quit last week after he was accused of attempting to rape a New York hotel maid.
However, the representatives of major developing nations on the IMF's board issued a joint statement on Tuesday urging the lending agency to abandon the practice of always choosing a European to head the IMF.
The decision on the next IMF leader will be made by the agency's 24-member executive board, whose officials represent the 187 IMF member countries.
The executive directors representing Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa said in a joint statement that they wanted to see the election of the next IMF chief be "truly transparent" and merit-based.
"This requires abandoning the obsolete unwritten practice of convention that requires that the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe," the five executive directors from developing nations said. In the IMF's history, it has always been headed by a European while an American has always been head of the World Bank.
"We feel it is outrageous to have the post reserved for a European," said Nogueira Batista, IMF executive director from Brazil and one of the signers of the joint statement. "We want it to be a truly open process, not just in words, but in reality."
Batista said that his country and the other nations who joined in the statement have not picked a candidate yet. He said that they will be watching to see the candidates emerge during the nomination process over the next three weeks.
The top three candidates in terms of the support they receive from the IMF board will go into a final round of interviews with the IMF board. The IMF has said it hopes to have the job filled by the end of June.
"We hope to have a managing director selected who is the best person for the job irrespective of nationality," Batista said in an interview.
Licinda Creighton, Ireland's minister for European affairs, said she believed that Lagarde would be an "excellent candidate, she's eminently qualified, and if she's nominated we're likely to support her," Creighton said.
Ireland's influence on the choice of the next IMF chief is limited, but European heavyweights including Germany and Britain have already backed Lagarde, making her the European frontrunner for a job she has yet to declare any interest in.
French government spokesman Francois Baroin told Europe 1 radio Tuesday that China is "favorable" to Lagarde's candidacy to run the IMF, which provides billions in loans to stabilize the world economy. He didn't say where the information came from.
China's endorsement would provide a big boost to Lagarde. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declined to comment at a regular news briefing on Tuesday, China's IMF executive director signed the joint statement issued by major developing countries.
The head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Angel Gurria, said choosing a woman to lead the Washington-based fund would benefit diversity.
"That certainly is welcome," he said. The IMF has never had a woman managing director.
"Madame Lagarde herself would be the first one to say it is not a question of simply because you are a woman," Gurria told The Associated Press. "But if it's a formidable woman like she is, well of course then you're talking business."
Gurria, a former Mexican finance minister whose name has also been mentioned in connection with the post, played down suggestions he might run if nominated.
"When you're talking about merit, it's difficult to find somebody with more merit (than Lagarde)," he said. "The Europeans have clearly picked up their best and the brightest."
There is no fixed deadline for the appointment of the next IMF chief, but its board has said it wants to make a decision by the end of June.
With the drumbeat for Lagarde growing louder, Canada cautioned against hasty conclusions.
"We don't want to see the process moved along too quickly," Canada's minister of state for finance, Ted Menzies, told The AP. "Let's make sure that all of those that would qualify, could qualify, that their names come forward."
Pogatchnik reported from Dublin. AP Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report from Washington.