By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) - The next head of the World Trade Organization will be either Mexico's Herminio Blanco or Brazil's Roberto Azevedo, guaranteeing a Latin American nation will hold the top job at the global trade body for the first time.
Blanco and Azevedo emerged as the only candidates remaining after the second of three rounds of competition to succeed Pascal Lamy on Sept 1, a diplomatic source said on Thursday.
Three other candidates - Indonesia's Mari Pangestu, New Zealand's Tim Groser and South Korea's Taeho Bark - were asked to withdraw from the race after not garnering sufficient support from the WTO's 159 members, the source said.
The candidates were told of the results in a confidential meeting at the WTO's headquarters where three senior ambassadors are presiding over a six-month process to pick a new WTO director general.
The winner, who will emerge by the end of May, faces a huge challenge of restoring confidence in the WTO's ability to negotiate a global trade deal. The job confers little executive power, forcing the holder to rely on diplomacy, wit and persuasion.
Azevedo is Brazil's ambassador to the WTO and Blanco is a veteran trade negotiator who led Mexico in the NAFTA free trade talks.
For both men their current posts were seen as handicaps they had to overcome. Some trade diplomats saw Azevedo as too junior and lacking ministerial rank, while others frowned on Blanco's closeness to free-trade deals outside the WTO.
But the final pairing will please many WTO members who had said the next head of the organization should come from either Latin America or Africa. Some African nations may see the result as strengthening their own claim to the job next time around.
Two African candidates, from Kenya and Ghana, had been ejected after a first round earlier this month, along with contenders from Costa Rica and Jordan.
That round ended in acrimony, with Kenya saying the process was "grossly flawed" because one bloc - which diplomats said was a reference to the European Union - had not stuck to the rules of the competition.
The nine-strong field at the start of the competition was the biggest in the WTO's 18 year history. It also included three women for the first time, but all three are now out of the race.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Michael Roddy)