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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 still leads the race to become the next United Nations Secretary-General after a fourth U.N. Security Council secret ballot on Friday, diplomats said.

The 15-member council cast a ballot for each of the remaining 10 candidates, and the choices are: encourage, discourage, or no opinion. Guterres received 12 encourage, two discourage and one no opinion, diplomats said.

This is a slight improvement on his third round result of 11 encourage, three discourage and one no opinion.

Guterres, who was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, also won the first three rounds of secret ballots by the Security Council.

Slovakia's Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak hung on to second spot with 10 encourage, four discourage and one no opinion, diplomats said, also a slight improvement on his last result of nine encourage, five discourage and one no opinion.

The Security Council will continue holding secret ballots in a bid to reach consensus on a candidate to replace U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon of South Korea who steps down at the end of 2016 after serving two five-year terms.

A fifth Security Council ballot is due to be held on Sept. 26, diplomats said, and aims to recommend a candidate to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly for election in October. Ultimately, the five permanent veto-wielding council members - the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France - must agree on a candidate.

Two of the initial 12 candidates have dropped out and British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said he hopes the field can be narrowed further.

"The absolute minimum that a candidate needs is nine positive votes and no vetoes, so any candidate that is some way off that minimum is not going to win this race," Rycroft said ahead of the fourth ballot.

Former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic secured third place with nine encourage, four discourage and two no opinion.

The remaining seven candidates all received less than nine votes of encouragement, with former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim in fourth place followed by Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who is director-general of U.N. cultural organization UNESCO, former Slovenian President Danilo Turk and Argentinian Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra.

Next was former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who heads the U.N. Development Programme, former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica and Moldova's former Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman.

Civil society groups and nearly a third of the 193 U.N. member states, led by Colombia, have pushed for the first woman secretary-general. But hopes for a woman to lead the United Nations appear to have faded.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and James Dalgleish)

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