The race for UN secretary-general (SG) is heating up with a second round of interviews scheduled for 7 June and the recent nominations of Argentina’s Susana Malcorra and Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak, bringing the official candidate count to 11. The UN Security Council’s permanent five (P5) members remain the ultimate decision-maker on the SG’s selection, and although the P5 usually hold their cards close to their chest, rumours are swirling around the UN's Manhattan HQ that the UK was unimpressed by the initial crop of Eastern European candidates.

While commentators have thoroughly publicised the factors at play in the race related to gender and geography, there’s also a distinction to be made between UN insiders and UN outsiders, each bringing their own pros and cons. With the race still so up in the air, it’s worth taking a closer look at two candidates, one UN insider and one outsider, to see how their prospects are shaping up.

An insider – Irina Bokova (Bulgaria)

Bulgarian Irina Bokova brings considerable UN expertise to her campaign for SG, having served as Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 2009. Born in 1952, Bokova grew up in Sofia in a prominent and influential Communist family, which has raised some questions throughout her career. Bokova’s father edited the country’s leading Communist newspaper, and she was a member of the Communist Party as a young person, an affiliation she acknowledges but clarifies was out of necessity and not by choice. She told a reporter in 2009, 'All my life I have shown I supported the political transformation of my country. I have nothing to be ashamed of'. Like other children in the elite at the time, Bokova studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations where she earned an MA in 1976. She speaks English, French, Spanish, and Russian in addition to her native Bulgarian.

In 1977 Bokova joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where she served at its mission to the UN in New York and as a delegate to UN conferences on women’s rights. As a Member of Parliament (1990-1991 and 2001-2005), she promoted Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO and participated in drafting its new constitution. Between MP stints, Bokova served as acting Foreign Minister, and afterwards she served concurrently as Ambassador to France, Monaco, and UNESCO (2005-2009).

As UNESCO chief, Bokova has garnered mixed reviews. Some have praised her energy and commitment to the organisation, where she has focused on advancing gender equality and education for all, while fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and violent extremism. Others have criticised her management skills and handling of UNESCO’s financial crisis (the organisation lost 22% of its budget in 2011 when the US withheld funding after UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member).

Bokova faced an uphill battle just to get the SG nomination. She received her country’s support from a Socialist administration back in 2014, but that government fell shortly thereafter, and the new administration reportedly preferred another Bulgarian; European Commission vice president Kristalina Georgieva. Georgieva ultimately withdrew her name from consideration, and Bokova got the nomination, but rumours persist about the possibility of Georgieva re-entering the race.

Some commentators have touted Bokova as an early favourite in the race, given her UN expertise and reported closeness to Moscow. Several recent developments, however, may be harming her candidacy.

First, as an insider, UN observers had high expectations for her interview with the UN General Assembly, but some felt that her performance was disappointing and lacking in substance. I found it surprising, for example, that in response to a question about how she would strengthen the UN’s communication, she admitted that she had not thought about it.

Second, Bokova faces accusations that she improperly hired a Brazilian official to a senior-level post at UNESCO. The allegations were reportedly triggered by an investigation that Britain’s ambassador to UNESCO helped launch in 2015. Bokova’s spokesperson has denied the allegations, but some wonder whether London’s concerns about her judgment could damage her campaign.

An outsider – Vesna Pusić (Croatia)

On the other hand, Croatian Vesna Pusić brings a wide range of experiences to her candidacy but is a clear UN outsider. Embracing that role, she has vowed to eliminate UN jargon, joking, 'Half the time no one in their right mind can understand what these people are saying'.

Born in 1953, Pusić grew up in Zagreb in a family of intellectuals where she says political and cultural debates around the dinner table were the norm. A sociologist by training, she holds a BA (1976) in Sociology and Philosophy and a PhD (1984) in Sociology from the University of Zagreb. Pusić began her career in academia, working her way up from researcher to professor of sociology. She also became involved in social activism from a young age, co-founding the first feminist group in the former Yugoslavia while in her twenties and later directing a think tank focused on promoting peace in the region.

Pusić turned to politics in the early 2000s, first as a party leader and parliamentarian and then as first deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs. From 2007-2011 she headed Croatia’s national committee for monitoring the EU accession negotiations, and in an achievement she describes as one of her proudest, she oversaw the country’s accession to the EU in 2013. Pusić currently serves as deputy speaker of the Croatian Parliament. She received her SG nomination from the outgoing prime minister in Croatia, despite uncertainty over the incoming government’s position on her candidacy. Pusić has maintained a lower profile than some of the other candidates, and she is funding her own airline tickets and hotel rooms during the campaign.

Rather than dwelling on her lack of UN experience, Pusić is framing herself as a sort of 'conflict resolution insider'. She suggests that her experience living through war and peace in a country that has also both received and provided development assistance gives her a sense of understanding and empathy that is important at the UN. 'Maybe it’s too much to expect that a secretary-general can change countries,' she says, 'But it helps a great deal if she can understand and know how it feels when talking to people in a country, or confronting a situation in a country before or during a conflict.'

Most of Pusić’s statements during her interview with the UN General Assembly were fairly unremarkable; however, her presentation was punctuated by a handful of passionate, concrete appeals. In one of the bright moments, she asserted that she’s never seen an organisation or a person that isn’t flawed and that acknowledging an organisation’s problems is part of preparing to work with it. An outspoken advocate for gender equality and LGBT rights, Pusić eloquently stood her ground when Saudi Arabia cautioned her against imposing social values on others by noting that bringing contentious issues to the forefront doesn’t pose a threat but rather serves as 'food for thought'.

While Pusić is well respected in the diplomatic community, several commentators speculate that her pro-LGBT stance and generally pro-Western record may cost her support from Russia. She speaks English and German in addition to her native Croatian, but her lack of French may raise questions for Paris, which has traditionally insisted on an SG speaking French (though Ban Ki-moon’s struggles with the language suggest that France is backing away from this requirement). Regardless, one UN watcher says Pusić has even hinted that she doesn’t believe she’ll get the job.

Looking ahead

There is a case to be made both for a UN insider or an outsider to become the next SG. Former SG Kofi Annan — the only SG in history to be selected from the UN ranks — benefited from a deep understanding of the UN’s culture and inner workings, but his loyalty to the organisation and staff probably at times led him to turn a blind eye to their faults. As an outsider, current SG Ban Ki-moon has brought some fresh perspectives. However, he came into the job with an incomplete understanding of UN protocol and almost immediately ran afoul of member states when he introduced structural reforms without the customary consultations. 

Although Bokova and Pusić are arguably both qualified for the post, albeit in different ways, neither may ultimately ascend to the UN’s top spot. We’ll learn more about whether Bokova can overcome the criticisms levied towards her or whether Pusić can distinguish herself from the field by the end of July, when the Council is expected to start its private consultation process.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations