Issues such as science and education in developing countries were pushed aside in a scramble for votes as the election of a new director-general of UNESCO got underway in Paris yesterday (17 September).
Current director-general Koichiro Matsuura of Japan steps down in October after two terms at the helm.
Egypt's culture minister Farouk Hosni led the field after the first round of voting, garnering 22 of the 58 UNESCO executive council votes. But this was short of the 30 votes needed to secure the post outright.
Experienced politicians who have also thrown their hats in the ring such as EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Alexander Yakovenko of Russia and Yvonne Baki of Ecuador received 7–8 votes each.
Lithuanian diplomat Ina Marciulionyte, UNESCO insider Nouréini Tidjani-Serpos of Benin and Sospeter Muhongo of Tanzania, none of whom have big government resources behind them, obtained less than three votes each.
The second place votes were "surprisingly spread over four countries", making it difficult to predict who could take on Hosni, says Alec Boksenberg, chair of the UK commission for UNESCO.
Science did not take centre stage in the process. Muhongo, the sole scientist among the candidates, received just one vote despite energetic lobbying.
Paris-based diplomats noted that during his speech to the executive board, Muhongo toned down an emphasis on boosting science within UNESCO to broaden his appeal but was nevertheless considered "too technical" for a top administrative and political post.
Sources in Paris said Muhongo might withdraw in exchange for the post of UNESCO assistant director-general for science or head of UNESCO's Nairobi regional office.
"Member states are realising science is important and it is crucial for UNESCO to be promoting science," says Boksenberg. Yet most of the candidates, including front-runners like Hosni and Ferrero-Waldner, have made only vague declarations on science in their presentations.
Diplomats say voting patterns followed clear regional lines and existing political commitments.
"The commitments of the voting delegates in this round are not to the individual candidates but government to government. However after this first ballot all bets are off," says John Daly, vice-president of Americans for UNESCO. He predicts it could be several rounds before members of the UNESCO executive board would "consolidate on an anti-Hosni vote."
Hosni has been controversial because of perceived anti-Jewish remarks made last year.
Some had expected Ferrero-Waldner to be a stronger candidate but Asian diplomats in particular said she had taken a "narrow European view of the world". Executive board members are looking for a clear commitment to issues important to developing countries, including education.
Up to five rounds of voting can be held, with any of the candidates putting themselves forward for the first four rounds. If no winner emerges, the final round is between the two candidates with the most votes.
The winner will be endorsed by the full 193-nation UNESCO assembly in October.