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Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), arrives for a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File photo

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By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres could cement himself as the ninth United Nations Secretary-General when the Security Council holds its second secret ballot on Friday, some diplomats said.

Although the candidates to be the first woman U.N. leader appear to have faded, other envoys say it remained too early to tell who might replace U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who will step down at the end of 2016 after serving two five-year terms.

Twelve candidates - six men and six women - are vying for the post. (graphic - http://tmsnrt.rs/2aLr6IV)

This year's campaign sparked a push by civil society groups and nearly a third of the 193 U.N. member states - led by Colombia - for the first female secretary-general. Four council members are in the group: Japan, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela.

"It's a pity there are no women in the first or second place," said Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, currently a council member.

Colombian U.N. Ambassador Maria Emma Mejia said the Group of Friends for a Woman Secretary-General succeeded in putting gender equality on the U.N. agenda and attracting six female candidates, but there was disappointment that "none of them made it to the top" of the first poll.

"I wouldn't close the possibility for a woman and I would still stress to Security Council members to consider a woman," she said. "The issue of gender has captured people's attention."

The 15-member council will have a ballot for each candidate, and the choice is encourage, discourage or no opinion. In the first poll on July 21, Guterres received 12 encourages and three no opinions, edging out former Slovenian President Danilo Turk, who got 11 encourages, two discourages and two no opinions.

"It's significant that (Russia) expressed no opinion on Guterres," said a senior council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If there is another vote with no discourage, I think that is him locked in as the highly likely next secretary-general."

When asked on Friday if his country might discourage Guterres, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said with a smile: "Why should I? He's such a good man."

Still, he said diplomats should not jump to conclusions about the prospects for Guterres, who until last year led the U.N. refugee agency. "It is not going to be resolved on Friday. This is my gut feeling," Churkin said.

The Security Council will continue to hold secret ballots until a consensus is reached on a candidate. Diplomats said the aim was for the council to recommend a candidate to the 193-member General Assembly for election in September or October.

"I think by our third and fourth straw poll we will start seeing it a bit more clearer," said Angola's U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, currently one of 10 elected Security Council members.

Ultimately, the five permanent veto-wielding council members - the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France - must agree on a candidate.

The U.N. Charter calls the secretary-general the "chief administrative officer" of the world body. The U.N. website describes the role as "equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and chief executive officer."

Ban currently oversees some 41,000 civilian staff and 16 peacekeeping operations with more than 101,000 troops and police. The core annual United Nations budget is some $2.7 billion, while the peacekeeping budget is nearly $8 billion.

Since the power to authorize military force or sanctions rests with the Security Council, the U.N. chief has little more than a bully pulpit. Many diplomats say the five veto powers prefer a "secretary" rather than a "general".

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by John Walcott and David Gregorio)

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