"This is a procedure that is all but unique in the world — a selection rather than an election that takes several months to complete," a source close to the process told AFP.
The candidates — six men and three women mainly from developing nations — are all considered confirmed global trade specialists and are vying to replace Frenchman Pascal Lamy, who finishes his second four-year term in August.
This past week, they have all gone before the WTO's general council for gruelling questioning about their merits and visions for the organization, which oversees global trade practices and is trying to reduce tariffs that hobble exchanges.
The interviews took place behind closed doors, but in subsequent news conferences all the candidates stressed the urgency in addressing the WTO's main challenge: jump starting the stalled Doha Round of trade talks that was launched in 2001.
"The reality is that the round at this point in time is paralyzing the system, and we have to solve it," insisted Brazil's envoy to the WTO Roberto Azevedo, who was one of three candidates from Latin America — a heavily-tipped region to land the organization's top job — and the last of the nine to face the fire.
South Korean Trade Minister Taeho Bark, the only other candidate who spoke Thursday, agreed, insisting that "there's a need to rebuild trust."
On Wednesday, New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser, the only candidate from an advanced economy and therefore considered a longshot since the UN's trade body appears set on picking someone from a developing nation, stressed that the WTO was facing a "problem of relevance."
Mexican economist and former minister Herminio Blanco Mendoza also cautioned Wednesday that the WTO risked "losing relevance" if the next Doha-round talks in Bali at the end of the year failed.
Former Jordanian trade minister Ahmad Thougan Hindawi, the only Middle Eastern candidate, also spoke Wednesday of a need of "a fresh outside look" to get the process moving.
"After 12 years of stalled negotiations, it's time to think of modernizing," agreed high-level United Nations executive Amina Mohamed of Kenya, one of two candidates from Africa — a region also thought likely to provide the organization's next leader.
While insisting that her candidacy was purely based on merit, Mohamed said that "it would send a very, very powerful signal . . . if this organization decided that a woman, preferably an African woman, should take over at the helm of the WTO."
Indonesia's current tourism minister and former trade minister Mari Elka Pangestu, who might have less of a chance given that Lamy's predecessor Supachai Panitchpakdi comes from neighbouring Thailand, also told media on the first day of interviews Tuesday that the WTO would be well-served by having a woman at the top.
The third woman who has thrown her hat in the ring, Costa Rica's Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzalez, meanwhile said she was a "cautious optimist" that the WTO would get the Doha round on track.
Ghana's former trade minister Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen, who was the first to make his case on Tuesday, also spoke of the need to "revitalise an extremely important organisation."
As the interview process wrapped up Thursday, the candidates were preparing three months of world travel to convince the 158 WTO member states of their merits.
The final selection will be made by a "troika" composed of the yet-to-be-picked presidents of the WTO's general council, its Dispute Settlement Body and its Trade Policy Review Board.
Once the three leaders have been chosen, something that must happen by the end of February, the troika will ask each member state to provide their two favourite candidates, as well as the one they are most opposed to.
Based on the responses they receive, the three WTO leaders will gradually begin dropping candidates, with the ones who stand little chance of being selected expected to withdraw of their own volition.
The decision must be made no later than May 31st, and the nominee is to take over at the WTO on September 1st.