GENEVA – Indonesia has entered the race for leadership of the World Trade Organization, nominating former trade minister Mari Pangestu to succeed Pascal Lamy when he steps down in August 2013, bringing the second woman and the third continent into the contest.
Pangestu, who studied in Australia and holds a doctorate in international trade from the University of California, is the third candidate to be nominated in as many days, following Ghana's Alan Kyerematen and Costa Rica's Anabel Gonzalez.
All five directors general in the WTO's 17-year history have been male, and all but one have come from developed countries.
The nomination of Pangestu, a technocrat and reformer in Indonesia's cabinet, will be a surprise for many trade diplomats, since she is not one of the half-dozen names of likely runners that have been batted around Geneva in recent months.
An ethnic Chinese, she served as trade minister for seven years until a cabinet reshuffle in October 2011.
As trade minister, she favored the Doha Round of trade global talks rather than regional deals such as the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, something that should strengthen her credentials as a champion of the WTO.
Early last year, she also warned that the decade-old Doha Round would fail if rich nations such as the United States did not offer more agricultural concessions.
Although she was respected in the WTO and in international forums such as the G20, she often clashed with cabinet colleagues who wanted to protect domestic interests.
That led to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono moving her to another cabinet post, to avoid damage to the government's image, analysts said at the time.
That independence could play to her advantage in the WTO, since Indonesia has come under strong criticism this year, especially from the United States and European Union over its import licensing rules.
Indonesia also faces questions from Turkey, Australia and Sri Lanka over the government's decision to slap a 20 percent emergency import tariff on wheat flour, after the government came under pressure from the struggling milling industry.
However Indonesia has also won favor by volunteering to host the WTO's next two-yearly ministerial conference, which is set to take place in Bali in December 2013.
But being Asian could count against Pangestu because another Asian - Thailand's Supachai Panitchpakdi - held the job before Lamy took over in 2005, and diplomats have said it is the turn of a Latin American, Caribbean or African candidate.
There has been less obvious concern about sharing the job between the sexes, and the vast majority of ambassadors to the WTO are men.
The candidates will make their pitch to the WTO membership in late January and the eventual winner will be chosen by "consensus" of the WTO membership by May 31.
Whoever wins faces the challenge of being the public face of an institution which has been stuck in stalled negotiations for years, with little real power to force a deal beyond cajoling, encouraging and occasionally blaming members.
Lamy has referred to himself as a "midwife" who can only help a deal emerge but cannot order agreements or reforms in the trading system, since the WTO is owned by its members.
The window to nominate candidates to succeed him is open for the month of December. Diplomats had said they expected countries to hold off nominating as long as possible since going too early could damage their chances, so more candidates may be put forward before Dec 31.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Rosalind Russell)