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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Conference on the Prevention of Violent Extremism at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - In a departure from 70 years of secrecy, candidates for United Nations secretary-general will this week make campaign-style pitches to the General Assembly as it hopes to influence the private Security Council poll that picks the winner.

The search for a successor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - a former South Korean foreign minister who steps down at the end of the 2016 after two five-year terms - has also sparked a push by more than a quarter of U.N. states for the organization's first female leader.

While the 15-member Security Council will formally recommend a candidate to the 193-member General Assembly for election as the eighth U.N. secretary-general later this year, the General Assembly vote has long been seen as a rubber stamp.

The council's veto powers, the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France, must agree on the nominee. That effectively makes the five veto-power countries kingmakers - or queenmakers.

After changes instituted by the General Assembly last year, the list of candidates is for the first time public with nomination letters and candidate resumes posted online.

In another first, the eight candidates who have so far been nominated will hold town hall meetings with the General Assembly on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They will each pitch their credentials and answer questions in a two-hour session.

On the surface, it is a shift towards democratization of a secretive process controlled by the five veto powers.

But there is no requirement for the five to pay attention to the popularity of candidates with the General Assembly, and the winner could still be selected in a backroom Security Council deal as has been the case for seven decades.

When asked if the meetings could have any influence over the veto-power countries, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said: "It might."

"For us it's important to hear what others think, and I'm sure they will not be shying away (from) telling us who they like, so it's going to be an interesting process," said Churkin.

But there will be no vote or informal polls by the General Assembly to signal to the Security Council who the favoured candidates might be.

"Even the biggest of powers need friends and a majority of their friends are actually asking for a much more open process where they get real influence," Mogens Lykketoft, the Danish diplomat who is president of the General Assembly, said in an interview.

HALF OF CANDIDATES ARE WOMEN

Diplomats say that privately Russia has shown no enthusiasm for the new transparency, and it views the town hall meetings as irrelevant. Moscow's main interest, they said, is ensuring the U.N. chief comes from Eastern Europe, in line with an informal tradition of rotating the post between regions.

The council will likely hold its first "straw poll" - an informal vote - behind closed doors in July and aims to have a decision by September so the General Assembly can elect the next U.N. chief in October.

At least 56 countries, led by Colombia, and several civil society groups want the world body's first female secretary-general since its creation at the end of World War Two. Even U.S. President Barack Obama is being lobbied by a group of senators who want him to push for a woman.

Half the candidates nominated so far are women: U.N. cultural organization UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria; former Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic; Moldova's former Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman; and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who heads the U.N. Development Programme.

Also in the race are former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim; Montenegro Foreign Minister Igor Luksic; former Slovenian President Danilo Turk; and former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who is also a former Portuguese prime minister.

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

Ban's predecessor Kofi Annan infuriated the United States by calling the 2003 invasion of Iraq illegal. Some diplomats say this led the United States to push for someone more pliable and resulted in the selection of Ban.

Some countries want a "general" this time who can clean up the U.N. in the wake of U.S. indictments over a bribery scandal and allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Central African Republic.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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