Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian head of the UN’s heritage body, would be Beijing’s favourite to head the United Nations after Secretary General Ban Ki-moon leaves office at end of this year, Chinese analysts said.
Bokova is the first female and first Eastern European to lead Unesco, and she has a reputation for emphasising dialogue among multiple stakeholders.
Ban said last month it was “high time” for a female secretary general after eight male leaders over seven decades. No UN chief has ever been elected from Eastern Europe, and under an unwritten rule of regional rotation, this is due to be rectified.
However, Ban has not singled out a particular candidate, saying that there are “many distinguished, motivated women leaders who can really change this world, who can actively engage with the other leaders of the world”.
There are five female candidates running for the job: Bokova, Helen Clark (New Zealand), Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), Natalia Gherman (Moldova) and Susana Malcorra (Argentina).
Yang Zewei, a specialist on international organisations from Wuhan University, said Beijing preferred Bokova over Gherman, anothercandidate from Eastern Europe.
Gherman is the former deputy prime minister of Moldova.
Speaking of Bokova, Yang said: “Her strength is not confined to her gender or origin. Her experience in leading Unesco, an international organisation not a nation, gives her more neutrality and credibility.”
Bokova is thus seen as someone who would not act in the interests of any particular country, according to Yang. She also had the advantage of cordial relations with both the United States and Russia, he said.
Bokova received a master’s degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1976, and has also studied in the United States, including at Harvard.
According to the UN Charter, a secretary general is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. That means the five permanent Security Council members have a veto, with Russia and the US likely to be the decisive voices in the end.
Neither Moscow nor Washington have openly spoken against Bokova.
Zhang Guihong, a professor and executive director at the Centre for UN Studies at Fudan University, said Unesco maintained a good relationship with Beijing during the years it was under Bokova’s governance.
“Beijing would be more comfortable cooperating with a familiar leader,” he added.
Bokova was not the front runner in a recent straw poll for the secretary general race, ranking only sixth among nine candidates in a round of voting on September 9. However, none of the permanent Security Council members have vetoed her.
Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese politician and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, now tops the list. But he is not from Eastern Europe and his gender is another disadvantage.
There are also rumours Russia would not welcome Guterres, who once firmly supported the expansion of Nato.