After an unusually acrimonious leadership battle, the International Organization for Migration kicked off an election on Monday to determine whether its current chief or one of his deputies should run the United Nations agency. The IOM’s 175 member states face a choice between backing former Portuguese government minister Antonio Vitorino for a second term, or supporting his US deputy Amy Pope to steer the organisation for the next five years. The secret ballot is taking place at a Geneva conference centre, and observers said it could take several voting rounds, possibly spilling into Tuesday, before a winner is declared. The IOM was founded in 1951 to handle the displacements in Europe following World War II but only became a UN agency seven years ago. The race for the top job at the organisation comes at a critical time, as global numbers of migrants soar. The Geneva-based body is the leading international body addressing the needs of some 281 million migrants throughout the world, according to a 2020 estimate. The drawn-out campaign for the director general position has caused a rift between Washington — which has invested heavily in ushering an American back into a traditionally US-held leadership role — and its European allies, observers say. “It does seem to have caused a certain amount of diplomatic consternation,” Megan Bradley, an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal and an expert on the IOM, told AFP. Within the UN system, agency chiefs who wish to take on a second term are typically shooed in without challenge. When Pope announced her candidacy in October, “it was a bit of a shock”, a European diplomat in Geneva acknowledged to AFP on condition of anonymity. “It was not seen as a friendly move.” Vitorino, a 66-year-old former Portuguese defence minister and deputy prime minister who became IOM chief in 2018, has meanwhile appeared defiant. “All my predecessors for 70 years made two mandates, and I don’t see any reason for a successful first mandate not to be followed by a second mandate,” he told AFP in March. Vitorino enjoys particularly strong support from European countries and has been praised for effectively leading the rapidly expanding organisation. But Pope, 49, who if elected would be the first woman to run the agency, insisted to AFP earlier this year that there was “a lot of room for improvement”, saying she had the vision needed to take IOM “into the 21st century”.