By Lesley Wroughton and Tiago Pariz
WASHINGTON/BRASILIA (Reuters) - Former Colombian finance minister Jose Antonio Ocampo on Friday withdrew his candidacy for World Bank president, leaving two candidates in a race that he said had turned highly political.
With the World Bank board meeting on Monday to pick a new president, Ocampo said he hoped emerging market nations would rally behind one candidate, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Okonjo-Iweala is now the sole candidate from developing nations in a race against U.S. nominee Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-American health expert who appears almost certain to win the post.
Ocampo said his candidacy had been "handicapped" by a lack of support from his own country.
"It is clear that the process is shifting from a strict merit-based competition, in which my candidacy stood on strong grounds, into a more political-oriented exercise," he said in a statement.
"In this process, I stand on weaker grounds due to the lack of open support from the government of my home country, Colombia," he added.
Ocampo said he did not believe the selection process had been fully open, transparent and merit-based, but it had established a strong precedent for future elections.
However, Ocampo's decision to leave the race does not mean all developing countries will support Okonjo-Iweala in a straw poll on Monday when the World Bank board tries to find consensus on a successor to Robert Zoellick, who is departing in June.
Indeed, the promise of a united front from emerging markets evaporated on Friday when Russia said it would support Kim, becoming the first major emerging economy to do so.
"Taking into account Mr. Kim's considerable professional qualities as well as his experience and knowledge, the Russian Federation will support the candidacy of Jim Yong Kim during the voting by the bank's board of directors," the Russian Finance Ministry said in a statement.
With their candidates, emerging market nations are seeking to challenge U.S. leadership at the bank to increase their influence in global economic institutions long controlled by rich nations.
Under a informal agreement, the World Bank has always been headed by an American and the IMF by a European.
While Kim is still the favorite to win the World Bank presidency because of his backing from the United States and European countries, a rigorous challenge from emerging market countries could put them in a stronger position to extract concessions favorable to their interests. It also increases their odds of winning senior jobs in the future.
The final decision could come down to political horse-trading and alliances.
(Editing by James Dalgleish, M.D. Golan, Andrew Hay)