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The race for a new director-general for UNESCO enters its final stages this week after a number of candidates withdrew at the weekend — leaving Egypt's culture minister Farouk Hosni as the leading contender for the post.

Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and Ivonne Baki of Ecuador, who is of Lebanese origin, are Hosni's remaining rivals but diplomats doubted whether either woman could muster enough votes to topple the Egyptian.

During Saturday's voting round (19 September), the third in a series of five, Hosni secured 25 of the 58 executive board votes, Bokova 13, the high-profile EU commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner 12 and Baki 9.

Candidates from Algeria, Benin, Lithuania, Russia and Tanzania dropped out after admitting they had insufficient support.

In a major upset on Sunday Ferrero-Waldner also withdrew. Paris-based diplomats said she was unable to unite the EU vote around her.

She stepped down "for the sake of European Unity", according to a statement from the Austrian foreign ministry in Vienna.

Andreas Westerwinter, associate researcher at UN University, said Ferrero-Waldner was "underqualified [for the UNESCO post] and overexposed". He said she had been urged to join the race in order to block Hosni's bid but it became clear her heart was not in what had become a purely political game.

"The chances of Hosni winning have been much improved by lack of European coordination behind a single candidate," he said.

Bokova, a career diplomat and currently her country's ambassador to Paris, was briefly Bulgaria's foreign minister and a vice-presidential candidate. Developing country diplomats said her presentation to the UNESCO board had impressed many countries.

She declared herself more than a year ago and has spent the last year on extensive tours of Asia and Africa to drum up support.

An Asian diplomat in Paris said "this race has always been about gaining support from developing countries. Candidates like Mrs Ferrero-Waldner have ignored that at their peril".

Despite controversy over perceived anti-Jewish remarks, Hosni entered the race in a strong position with backing from the Arab League and considerable support from African countries.

Baki is still in the race with US backing but only the smaller Latin American countries voting for her. Asian diplomats said she had been unable to extend her appeal outside the Latin American group.