Geopolitical struggle and Balkan intrigue mean there is no clear favourite to succeed Ban Ki-moon in the worlds top diplomatic job

Hacked emails, bogus Twitter accounts, smear allegations and backroom deals. Welcome to the race for the international communitys top diplomatic chore United Nations secretary general.

The eventual win of the tournament will ascend to become a secular saint, an ambassador of peace and voice of the poor and downtrodden. But the road to such a lofty stance is paved with landmines and land mine.

On Monday, the UN security council will hold the fifth of a series of straw polls aimed at picking a win from the remaining nine challengers in the race, in which the 15 council members will cast secret ballots.

The clear leader to date has been Antnio Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister and UN high commissioner for refugees. He has been a clear front runner in the past three security council meetings and in the latest, on 9 September, he received 12 foster referendums and merely two discouraging him( members ballots can foster, discourage or carry no sentiment about successful candidates ).

Guterres benefited from an early selection process that was unprecedentedly open by UN standards. Each challenger had to present a personal manifesto before the 193 countries in the general assembly, and Guterres won phases for his witticism, charisma and mastery of his brief. But his road to the secretary generalship could still be blocked by the right of veto from one of the five permanent council member, most plausibly Russia.

Antonio Guterres road to the job could still be blocked by the right of veto. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/ AFP/ Getty Images

Moscow argues it is the turning of an eastern European to provide the UN leadership, and may balk at the former leader of a western European Nato member state taking the helm. The incumbent Ban Ki-moon is from a US treaty friend, South Korea, and was Washingtons preferred candidate 10 years ago.

Last week, a Twitter account in Guterres name claimed to have secured Moscows support, triggering speculation the race could be abruptly over. But the account turned out to be a fake.

In second place is Slovakias foreign minister, Miroslav Lajk, who enjoyed a amaze surge from second last after his countrys pro-Russia prime minister, Robert Fico, visited Moscow four days before the third poll and made a point of highlighting his criticisms of EU sanctions on Russia over Crimea. For that reason, Lajk may face the right of veto from one or more of the western representatives from the permanent five.

Third-placed Vuk Jeremi, the former Serbian foreign minister, will almost certainly be vetoed by the US, diplomats say. Washington has not forgiven Jeremi for his opposition to Kosovan independence, amid its perception that he used his time as president of the general assembly as a platform for nationalist rhetoric.

The threat of vetoes, however, will only become decisive in the next round, when the permanent five will cast coloured ballots. Any candidate who receives a coloured ballot among their discourage referendums will know they have hit a stone wall.

In the ballots so far, the said he hoped that a strong field of women challengers would make the United nations organization first female secretary general appears to have been rebuffed. In the latest poll, the first three spots were taken by humen.

Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister and head of the UN Development Programme, is one of several highly qualified women in the race who did far worse than expected in the polls, but she played down the role of sexism.

If youre asking whether females are being discriminated against no, Clark told the Guardian. There are a lot of factors swirling around. There is east-west, there is north-south, theres the style of whats wanted in the job. Do they want strong leadership? Do they want malleable? Its all cross-cutting and we dont know what will come in the wash.

Kristalina Georgieva has been on the receiving objective of dirty trick. Photograph: Eric Vidal/ Reuters

Natalie Samarasinghe, the head of the United nations organization Association UK, who campaigned for a more transparent selection process this year, thinks gender has played a role, albeit a secondary one.

Highly qualified and experienced females have done less well than humen with comparatively sparse CVs, Samarasinghe told. I have no doubt that sexism is a factor. But I dont think its the whole story. Power politics matters more. What we are seeing is a battle between P5[ permanent five] members to assert themselves, in which the candidates may ultimately matter less than who is seen to get their route and who can extract the most for giving way.

Ultimately, competition and deal-making among the major powers will decide the win. The ups and downs of the straw polls are an outward sign of what is going on behind closed doors but do not tell the whole story. The most consequential rivalry in the race the coming week, for example, will be played out thousands of miles from UN headquarters, in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

After Bulgarias official nominee, Irina Bokova, the head of the UN education and culture organisation, Unesco, performed below expectations in the security council ballots, a behind-the-scenes campaign began to replace her with her fellow countrywoman, Kristalina Georgieva, the EU budget commissioner, who was defeated in the initial struggle to win the nomination.

The appearance of a series of articles assaulting Bokova, in the British press and elsewhere, resulted Bokova to complain of an undignified smear campaign. Conservative and rightwing European leaders also began talking up Georgieva, culminating in an attempt by Angela Merkel to persuaded Vladmir Putin to accept her at the G20 meeting in China earlier this month.

The German overture backfired, depicting a backlash from Moscow, while also infuriating France, who objected to Merkel trying into muscle into what Paris saw as a prerogative of the security council.

Georgieva has also been on the receiving objective of dirty trick. On 9 September, the email account of one her staff member was hacked and emails purporting to be from one of her top aides were sent out to the rest of her office, instructing them to attack Bokova. Her camp saw it as an attempt to discredit Georgieva.

A series of articles assaulting Irina Bokova resulted her to complain of a smear campaign. Photograph: Richard Drew/ AP

The outcome of this bitter conflict will be decided after Mondays ballot by the Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borisov. A fortnight ago, government officials briefed the reporters in Sofia that Borisov was about to swaying his support behind Georgieva. However, soon afterwards he changed his mind and said he would wait to see how Bokova did in the fifth ballot on Monday before constructing up his mind.

Since then, Russian officials have been canvassing votes for Bokova as a route of maintaining Georgieva out of the race.

If Russia can get her to 10 encourages it would be hard for Borisov to defenestrate her. If she remains at seven or eight, she is not safe, told Richard Gowan, an expert on the UN at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Even if Georgieva did make a late entrance into the race, she could still face the right of veto from Russia. She is after all a member of a European commission, currently enforcing sanctions on Moscow.

The permanent fives potential vetoes in the secretary general tournament are bargaining chips on a table on which rivalry in Syria, Ukraine and other conflicts is being brokered. The poisonous atmosphere in the council could make for a protracted struggle to which the most qualified candidates fall victim, opening the route for a more obscure contender.

Alternatively, Gowan argues, the permanent five might momentarily inter their differences to protect their shared privilege, as failure to do so would open the route for the wider UN membership in the general assembly to play a larger role in resolving security council deadlock.

For all the geopolitical difference, the logic of P5 control means they could still do a deal. The P5 is a little fazed by how much all the transparency stuff has shaped the tournament, he told. Their opinion is that the general assembly has had its fun and should now get back in its box.

The cross currents of geopolitical conflict and Balkan political intrigue, mean that nothing is decided until the last moment. For that reason, nominees with indifferent results in past ballots are staying in the race, at the least until the coloured ballots in October.

The bands still playing, Clark told. Anything can come out of this.

This article was revised on 26 September 2016 to make clear that Vuk Jeremi is no longer the Serbian foreign minister.

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