Bokova Seeks First Female UN Chief Job as Initial Voting Starts

  • Security Council will take a secret, informal vote on Thursday
  • Bulgaria’s Bokova is one of six women in running to lead UN

Seven years ago, Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova became the first woman and Eastern European to lead the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Now she wants to be the UN’s first female Secretary-General.

Bokova, 64, has the pedigree for the job: Before joining UNESCO, she was a two-time member of parliament and former ambassador to France. She studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and Harvard University. She speaks five languages. And in an institution that prizes “geographic balance,” Bokova hails from a region officials say is due for the leadership spot in a year in which female candidates are being actively sought for the job.

Irina Bokova

Photographer: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

It still might not be enough.

Richard Gowan, a UN scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says behind-the-scenes opposition to Bokova by the U.K. and U.S. -- part of a diplomatic tit-for-tat with Russia -- may doom her candidacy.

“Bokova may not do as well as expected a few months ago,” Gowan said. “The U.S. and U.K. have been pretty openly against her, due to her alleged ties to Russia, and have most likely been working on other Security Council members to discourage her.”

Best Candidate

An official at the U.K.’s Mission to the UN, who asked not to be identified because of ongoing discussions, said the country doesn’t reveal its voting intentions and wants the best candidate for the job. Officials at the U.S. and Russian missions to the UN didn’t respond to requests for comment.

With Ban Ki-Moon ending his second five-year term in December, the next UN chief will struggle to address issues including a failing peace process in Syria, malnutrition in Nigeria, climate change and sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program. Internally, the Secretary-General will help manage a $13 billion budget while facing demands to fix a peacekeeping program that oversees 105,000 troops worldwide and has been plagued by repeated allegations of sexual assault.

“The biggest challenge is to reform the UN but not to break it,” Bokova said in a July 19 interview in New York. “The role of the Secretary-General is to work with the permanent members of Security Council, with member states, to reconcile different views.”

Secret Ballot

Her next hurdle comes Thursday, when the Security Council holds a secret, informal vote that will help determine which candidates get weeded out and which remain under consideration.

While the UN has made the process of choosing its next leader a public affair so far -- initial interviews were broadcast live and included questions sent from online viewers as well as diplomats -- the five permanent members of the Security Council have final say.

Asked about her chances, Bokova smiled and said elections are unpredictable but “if I didn’t think I had a chance, I wouldn’t be here.”

Besides Bokova, the others vying to be the first female Secretary-General are former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who heads the UN Development Programme; Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra; Croatia’s Vesna Pusic; Moldova’s Natalia Gherman; and Costa Rica’s Christiana Figueres.

‘Somebody to Lead’

In a total field of 12 candidates, Bokova offered herself as the person who could best reach out to rival countries at the Security Council to gently reform the world body.

“The Security Council members want somebody to lead, not someone who is silent all the time,” she said.

Asked to cite some priority issues she’d be expected to deal with, Bokova focused on peacekeeping operations and renewed fighting between rival factions in South Sudan two years after the country’s last civil war ended. UN peacekeepers have been unable to stop the fighting or protect refugees and internally-displaced Sudanese from ethnic killings.

“The situation in South Sudan is grim and we need to ask why do countries go back into conflicts?” Bokova said. “The UN should try to settle these issues and strengthen the political missions to help democracy and transformation of young countries.”

October Decision

In Thursday’s vote, Security Council members will be given a ballot for each candidate with the options of “encourage,” “discourage” and “no opinion.” After the voting, the council will tally the ballots and inform the nominating states of the results for their candidates.

If history is a guide, after repeated rounds of voting, the five permanent members -- France, China, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- will have to jointly agree on a candidate. Diplomats say the council expects to reach a decision by October.

Born into a political family with close ties to the Bulgarian communist party, Bokova was also a member until 1990, when the party’s name was changed to the Bulgarian Socialist Party. She cited the largely peaceful transitions in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War as another asset for taking on a job that requires the skills of a peacemaker.

“East Europeans went through a peaceful revolution,” Bokova said. “Because we lived through it, we don’t realize that it was extraordinary but our experience is a lesson, an advantage. ”

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