VIENNA An election to pick a new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency stalled on Thursday when the Japanese frontrunner failed to win a required 2/3 majority in three rounds of voting.
The stalemate underlined a deep split between industrialized and developing states represented on the U.N. nuclear watchdog's 35-nation board of governors and will prompt a search for alternative candidates if further voting on Friday is inconclusive.
A prolonged delay in choosing a new director-general would be damaging, given an growing list of challenges to the agency's credibility, including controversial nuclear activity in Iran and Syria and a serious funding shortage.
"I reckon the chances of deadlock tomorrow are 90 percent," a European diplomat said after the closed-door polling. Another diplomat said: "A stalemate is more likely than not."
Yukiya Amano, Japan's IAEA ambassador favored largely by Western nations, prevailed over South African counterpart Abdul Samad Minty, whose core backing was in the developing world, by 21-14, 20-15 and 20-15 margins in the secret balloting.
On Friday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog's governors will hold a simple "yes, no or abstain" vote with only Amano on the ballot. If inconclusive, this procedure will be repeated for Minty.
If there is still no clear winner, the race to succeed IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei will be thrown open.
Several Latin Americans and a Spaniard, all with multilateral nuclear policy credentials, are among those who may be waiting in the wings. A month would be given for nominations of further candidates -- Amano and Minty could run again if they choose -- followed by another election, probably in May.
ElBaradei leaves office in November but the IAEA wants his successor chosen by June to ensure a smooth transition.
"Today's result shows that a lot of countries have an interest in nominating candidates (more palatable) to the board as a whole," said the European diplomat, who asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities.
"It was a stronger than expected performance by Minty but the voting made clear how the governors have become increasingly polarized on the major issues," said the second diplomat.
Amano and Minty have been regarded as largely creatures of their natural constituencies, seen as likely to tilt too much toward pursuing the known priorities of each as IAEA director.
Industrialized powers want the IAEA to do more to stop the spread of nuclear technology that could be used in making atomic bombs. Developing nations want it to get industrialized powers to ease curbs on technology transfers for energy purposes.
Apart from trying to balance these competing demands and coping on a meager budget, the new IAEA chief will have to try to revive blocked investigations into suspect nuclear activity in Iran and Syria, probes which have drawn the IAEA into the international spotlight.
The successful candidate may benefit from new U.S. diplomatic efforts under President Barack Obama to re-establish contacts with Tehran, Damascus and other U.S. foes.
ElBaradei, an Egyptian, shared the 2005 Nobel peace prize with the IAEA. But he clashed with the Bush administration over what its policy toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Iran, which he deemed bellicose and undermining the cause of non-proliferation.
Amano and Minty have distinct styles. Amano, 61, is a low-key diplomat steeped in civilian nuclear energy and non-proliferation affairs. Minty, 69, is an eloquent disarmament campaigner and negotiator and former anti-apartheid activist.
ElBaradei himself was a compromise candidate elected overwhelmingly in 1997 after two original nominees fell short.
Possible candidates mooted this time around include Luis Echavarri, the Spanish director of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's nuclear energy arm, and Rogelio Pfirter, Argentinian head of the Hague-based agency enforcing the global chemical weapons ban.
Former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, nuclear test ban treaty agency chief Tibor Toth, and Chilean ambassador Milenko Skoknic have also been mentioned privately.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)