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Updated: September 23, 2009 02:34 IST

In stunning upset victory, woman to head UNESCO

Vaiju Naravane
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Irina Bokova after being elected head of UNESCO on Tuesday.
Irina Bokova after being elected head of UNESCO on Tuesday.

In what can only be described as a stunning upset, Irina Bokova, Bulgaria's former foreign minister and current ambassador to Paris became the first woman to head UNESCO, the Paris-based United Nations agency for education science and culture. She also became the first person from the former Soviet bloc countries to be nominated to this post.

Ms. Bokova was elected on Tuesday by the organisation's 58-member Executive Board, winning 31 votes to defeat her rival, Egypt's culture minister Farukh Hosni, who polled 27.

The Board will now forward her nomination to UNESCO's General Assembly to be held in November 2009.

This was the most thrilling and closely fought election in the organisation's history with the candidates tied at 29 votes each in the fourth round. If the tie had continued in Tuesday's fifth and final round, the winner would have had to be drawn from a hat. Such a move would have been unprecedented.

Mr. Hosni's campaign was severely damaged by allegations of anti-Semitism. Several prominent intellectuals campaigned against Mr. Hosni who had strong backing from France, and his apology for anti-Semitic remarks made before his parliament was penned by President Nicolas Sarkozy's special adviser. Mr. Hosni's apologies and explanations that he was quoted out of context, however, did not cut ice with a majority of the Executive Board.

In a short address to journalists immediately after her election, Ms. Bokova said she would undertake her new duties "with joy but also with a sense of responsibility." She said she would take on board "all good ideas for the future of UNESCO" and congratulated her defeated rival, saying she would work closely with the Egyptian delegation.

Ms. Bokova gained ground at the last minute as seven other candidates dropped out, partly because of efforts to find a strong challenger to Mr. Hosni. She joined Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry's U.N. and disarmament department in 1976. She was foreign minister for a brief period in 1996-1997. Her candidature had the support of the Americans and the Germans while Mr. Hosni had strong backing from France.

The organisation denied allegations of last-minute bribery attempts to sway the voting. The charges surfaced hours before the fifth-round balloting. A delegate told The Associated Press that at least one person was ejected from the agency's building by security staff for trying to bribe delegates on Monday.

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