United Nations, New York - It was a classic moment of awkward United Nations theatre.

Five applicants for the job of UN secretary-general were asked, in a live Al Jazeera television debate, whether they would apologise to Haiti after UN peacekeepers introduced a strain of cholera that has claimed thousands of lives there.

One of them, Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican climate change expert, raised her right arm aloft, winning rapturous applause from the audience. The others glanced around. Two remained still, two half-lifted their hands, uneasily.

Former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, centre, speaks during a debate in the United Nations General Assembly between candidates vying to be the next UN Secretary-General at UN headquarters in New York [Mike Segar/Reuters]

It was a tough question. Many scientists have blamed the blue helmets for bringing the killer bug to Haiti in 2010, but UN officials have been loath to admit any wrongdoing or stump up billions of dollars to compensate bereaved families.

The cautious nominees likely wanted to appeal to the crowd, which was sympathetic to Haiti's plight, but more importantly, to the powerful UN members that would have to foot that bill and ultimately decide who gets the job.

Ten years ago, asking that question would not have been possible.

But selecting the secretary-general is a changed process in 2016. A push by many smaller UN members has made it more competitive and transparent, despite resistance from the US, Russia and other titans that are used to calling the shots.

For the first time, the UN published the names and CVs off all 12 candidates who threw their hats in. They have been grilled in public UN hearings, by Al Jazeera's moderators and at private events in New York, London and elsewhere.

For Bill Pace, a UN reformer, these acts of transparency will pay off, making it more difficult for the permanent P5 UN Security Council members - Russia, China, Britain, France and the US - to select a compliant candidate who would not push for core reforms.

"It's the most transparent, effective process for identifying and vetting secretary-general candidates in 70 years of UN history," Pace, director of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign for a better UN chief, told Al Jazeera.

While the early stage was more transparent, the race has now shifted to an arcane Security Council phase of "straw polls" in which diplomats of 15 countries vote secretly to "encourage", "discourage" or offer "no opinion" on the contenders.

INTERACTIVE: The UN Debate

Supportive votes and discouragements

For James Bays, the Al Jazeera moderator who posed the tricky Haiti question in last month's debate, early hopes of all 193 UN members having a say in who gets the top job are fading fast as selection takes place behind closed doors.

Instead of the UN declaring the straw poll results, journalists must call up diplomats to learn the outcome, Bays said. "It's somewhat farcical that in this atmosphere of transparency, the Security Council can't at least announce the results of the straw polls," he added.

Earlier this month, in the second such poll, Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and UN refugee tsar, extended his lead with 11 votes of support and only two naysayers - a markedly better score than any of his rivals.

Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres speaks during a debate in the United Nations General Assembly between candidates [Mike Segar/Reuters]

Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister who calls for a more robust roll for UN peacekeepers, surprised many by coming second. Argentina's foreign minister and a tested UN insider, Susana Malcorra, rose up the rankings to place third.

Figueres may have erred by raising her hand to the Haiti question. She only got five supportive votes and eight discouragements. Helen Clark, New Zealand's former prime minister and a UN development chief, once a favourite, polled badly as well.

Croatian politician Vesna Pusic has already pulled out. Others will likely follow suit after the third round on August 29.

Much could change in later ballots when P5 heavyweights can deploy their vetoes to effectively nix a candidate. The straw poll results are leaked to reporters, but it is unclear whether a P5 state has voted against Guterres or other aspirants.

Guterres can show pizazz in front of a press pack and has fans. Erol Kekic, a migration expert at Church World Service, a charity, told Al Jazeera that his experience leading global refugee efforts "would add a lot of capacity" to the top UN office.

Others are sceptical. According to Jean Krasno, a Yale University scholar, Guterres "should've been out waving the flag, giving us early warning" when the refugee crisis erupted in 2012. Instead, he kept shtum and "didn't do his job", she told Al Jazeera.

Is the UN ready for a woman?

Guterres hails from an "old boys' club" that has awarded the UN pulpit to eight men but no women, added Krasno. That must change, and such female hopefuls as Malcorra, Figueres and Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who runs the UN's culture agency, are first rate.

The current UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, agrees. It is "high time now" for a woman, he said this month.

China's special representative for climate change Zhenhua Xie with Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican climate change expert and a candidate for the secretary-general position [Miguel Medina/EPA]

Others say it is time for an Eastern European to have the privilege. Miodrag Vlahovic, Montenegro's former foreign minister, has called for regional players to get behind a single candidate so that they are not "overlooked again".

The pack is likely to slim in September, and the council is expected to select one name in October or November, who will then be rubber-stamped by the full UN membership under a process outlined in the UN Charter.

They will replace the current UN secretary-general, Ban, on January 1, 2017 - once the South Korean diplomat ends his second, five-year term, which critics lament as among the least-inspiring in the world body's history.

OPINION: New UN secretary-general must commit to accountability

Ban has helped tackle poverty and climate change but is often criticised for showing weak leadership on Syria's brutal civil war and for being too beholden to Washington, Moscow and Beijing at the expense of other capitals.

"One can't imagine a candidate like Ban making it through the current, more transparent, selection process because of his inability to communicate effectively in English or French," said Pace, referring to Ban's often-awkward public appearances.

Critics say that years of rudderless leadership is making the world body irrelevant. Today, the UN can look far removed from the idealistic 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with an overstretched staff shouldering an endless host of global issues while facing budgetary constraints. 

READ MORE: Ban Ki-moon - 'My replacement should be a woman'

Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the UN General Assembly, said the next person to sit on the 38th floor of UN headquarters must be equipped to lead on climate change, global terrorism, poverty, Syria's war and other crises.

"The pooling of authority at the UN should be stronger, and for that reason, you need a strong personality," Lykketoft told Al Jazeera. A "political, diplomatic, high-skilled, person who can actually bring a strong added value in the process of bringing major powers together."

There are other signs that the UN is adapting to criticism.

On August 18, a month after Al Jazeera's debate, the UN followed Figueres' lead and said it may have been complicit in bringing cholera to Haiti. Ban's spokesman described a moral responsibility to provide "material assistance" to the ravaged Caribbean nation.

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera