A woman will become director-general of the World Trade Organization for the first time, after the race narrowed down to candidates from Nigeria and South Korea and contenders from Kenya, Saudi Arabia and the UK were eliminated.
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee will contest the final run-off and the winner will be announced in early November after a final few weeks of campaigning, trade officials said on Thursday.
The outcome was largely expected after one of the early favourites, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, faltered when the EU supported her rivals and opposition emerged from other big countries.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala is the strong favourite, according to most observers; she would be the first WTO chief from Africa. She is a well-known policymaker, having negotiated a large sovereign debt writedown and battled corruption as Nigeria’s finance minister, and served as a managing director at the World Bank.
Ambassadors to the WTO said that, although Japan insisted it would back candidates on merit, Tokyo and Beijing were likely to exercise a de facto veto against Ms Yoo because of political tensions with Korea.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala has emphasised her World Bank experience managing a large multilateral organisation and her role as chair of the board of Gavi, a public-private alliance to develop vaccines for low-income countries. The drive to create a vaccine has sparked a debate about patents, which are protected by WTO agreements.
But Ms Okonjo-Iweala has fought to overcome a perception that, with limited experience at the WTO and never having served as a trade minister, she has relatively little knowledge of the complexities of trade.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, she said: “They’ve narrowed trade to become negotiations, but that is not what it’s all about. If the problem of the WTO was people with negotiating skills, why hasn’t the problem been solved?”
The director-general serves a renewable term of four years. The role became available because of the unexpected early resignation of the Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who had held the job since 2013; he stepped down in September.
The contest comes at a time when the organisation is under intense pressure to reform from the US, which claims it has failed to restrain Chinese state capitalism and has unfairly declared parts of US trade law against WTO rules.
Although Ms Mohamed has a longer record in the field, trade officials said that she had aroused opposition by her determined and sometimes combative style, particularly when chairing a WTO ministerial meeting in Nairobi in 2015. Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, said: “Trade ministers were dissuaded from their past interactions with Amina to the point they actually prefer someone who has almost no WTO experience.”
Liam Fox, the UK candidate, and Mohammad Maziad al-Tuwaijri, from Saudi Arabia, surprised many observers by winning enough backing to reach the second round but failed to gain the breadth and depth of support needed to make the final run-off.