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The WTO is facing a leaderless autumn after failing to select an interim leader while the contest to replace outgoing director Roberto Azevedo continues.

Azevedo, a Brazilian former diplomat, will step down from the position on 31 August.

The WTO has given no firm date as to when his replacement will take office, but a decision will likely be made by November 2020.

Interim impasse

Members of the WTO failed to agree on who should become its caretaker leader for September through to November this year.

One of the organisation’s four deputy director generals would normally take the interim role, but a consensus on who this should be was not reached. The four deputies are from China, Germany, Nigeria and the US.

“The original effort was to try and designate an acting director general among the four,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told a media briefing. “That was not possible. We were not able to get a consensus on that.”

Reuters reports that the White House had insisted on the US deputy, Alan Wolff, stepping into the caretaker role.

Next steps

WTO members did agree last week to cut down the eight candidates currently bidding to replace Azevedo to five. They will then continue to build consensus to eventually reduce the field to a final two.

According to the WTO website, the selection process is following this schedule:

  • During the ‘first phase’, candidates addressed the WTO’s General Council on 15-17 July
  • In the ongoing ‘second phase’ candidates are expected to “make themselves known” to the WTO’s 164 member states
  • From 7 September, the ‘third phase’ of the process begins, in which the WTO will consult with members to determine which candidate “is best placed to attract consensus support”
  • This will involve each member voting for its four preferred candidates from 7 to 16 September
  • The WTO will then continue multiple consultations with members to narrow the field of candidates
  • The third phase is expected to last no more than two months, implying a decision on the new leader will be reached by November

The selection body, which will consult with member states, is led by chair of the General Council David Walker (New Zealand).

Two front-runners

According to betting firm Ladbrokes, Amina Mohamed (Kenya) and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria) are the current frontrunners for the position. The UK’s Liam Fox is trailing in equal last place.

In a wide-reaching interview with the Financial Times, Mohamed and Okonjo-Iweala said they agreed with American criticisms of judicial over-reach by the organisation’s dispute settlement system.

Neutral amid rising tensions

The WTO has increasingly been caught in the middle of rising geopolitical tensions between the US and China.

It has also acted as an arbiter in the dispute between the US and the EU over subsidies for European aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

Both candidates stressed the political neutrality of their home countries in relation to these disputes in their interviews with the FT.

Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown recently endorsed Okonjo-Iweala for the position, saying she would make an “outstanding success” of leading the Geneva-based body, reports the Times.

Race to lead

1: Amina Mohamed (Kenya) – 3/2

2: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria) – 3/1

3=: Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt) – 6/1

3=: Jesus Seade (Mexico) – 6/1

5: Yoo Myung-hee (South Korea) – 8/1

6=: Liam Fox (UK) – 16/1

6=: Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia) – 16/1

6=: Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova) – 16/1

(Source: Ladbrokes)