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Brazil's Azevedo wins race to head WTO

Roberto Azevedo, Brazil's permanent representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO), speaks during an interview with Reuters in London
Roberto Azevedo, Brazil's permanent representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO), speaks during an interview with Reuters in London

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) - Brazil's Roberto Azevedo has won the race to become the next head of the World Trade Organization, the first candidate from the BRIC club of emerging economies to take the job.

The career trade diplomat now faces a huge challenge to reinvigorate the global body, which has failed to wrap up the Doha trade liberalization talks after years of stalemate and risks becoming irrelevant without a breakthrough.

Azevedo beat Mexico's Herminio Blanco, widely seen as the favored choice of the United States, in the final round of the contest to succeed France's Pascal Lamy on Tuesday.

The result of the selection process was meant to be secret until a formal announcement on Wednesday but diplomats close to the talks named him as the winning candidate on Tuesday and he later confirmed his victory on his website.

"My candidacy had a very broad base of support from all kinds of countries," Azevedo wrote.

He will become the first Latin American to head the trade body since its creation in 1995 once Lamy steps down on Aug 31.

Both Brazil and Mexico had pushed the case for their candidates hard, seeking to cement their status as growing economic powers.

Azevedo, who has up to now been Brazil's ambassador to the WTO, had touted his ability to listen to all sides in a negotiation and to find solutions by quietly building consensus, a contrast with Blanco's idea of using the business sector to force governments to make deals happen.

"Selecting Roberto Azevedo means a lot to many in the WTO system who have been looking for a non-dogmatic perspective on trade liberalization," said Ricardo Melendez-Ortiz, a former Colombian trade negotiator who now heads the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva.

The global trade talks that began in Doha in 2001 reached deadlock in 2011, forcing the WTO to focus on a far smaller package of trade reforms and prompting many countries to pursue bilateral and regional trade deals instead, such as the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Even the smaller package of reforms - widely seen as a crucial first step - is proving hard to agree on. At the same time the WTO's global rules risk getting drowned out by the plethora of regional deals now being negotiated.

In Washington, the National Foreign Trade Council, a leading U.S. business group, praised Azevedo's experience and the focus he had placed on consensus-building in Geneva, but warned that there was a big job ahead.

"The next head of the WTO faces two critical tasks in steering the membership toward a successful outcome to the ministerial conference this December in Indonesia," the NFTC's vice president Jake Colvin said in a statement.

The Indonesia meeting - the WTO's biennial ministerial conference, which will be held in Bali - will be a baptism of fire for the new director general.

The WTO is struggling to get an agreement lined up for the meeting, despite massively pruning its ambitions after its Doha failures.

The Bali deal aims to cut bureaucracy by standardizing customs procedures, lending a potential trillion-dollar boost to the world economy, while introducing new rules to promote food security and concessions for poorer countries.

It could also massively reinvigorate the WTO's confidence in its own ability to reform the global trade rules, opening the path to more global negotiations in future.

But the United States and others have warned that on the current trajectory, the WTO is not going to get a deal in Bali, forcing a huge burden of expectation onto Azevedo.

He beat eight other candidates in a contest overseen by three WTO ambassadors, who totted up the support of the 159 member countries to settle on a single winner after three rounds of competition.

Sources involved in the contest said Blanco got a late boost from narrowly winning the European Union's support, although the bloc made clear that it could accept either man. Azevedo still managed to secure wider backing among the WTO's 159 members.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Alonso Soto, Anthony Boadle and Doug Palmer; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Andrew Heavens)

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