A high profile African Union leadership race ended early Tuesday inconclusively, with neither of two candidates able to command the two-thirds majority needed to win. A caretaker commission will run the organization until new elections can be held in June.
The incumbent AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping of Gabon and South African challenger Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma entered the contest confident of victory. In the end, both were rejected by the heads of state of the 54-member continental organization.
In three rounds of voting, Ping held a slight lead in his bid for a second term, with solid support from the French-speaking countries. But in a fourth round in which Ping was on the ballot alone, a bloc of 20 countries abstained, leaving him short of the 36 votes needed to win. It effectively was a no-confidence vote in his leadership, throwing the organization into limbo.
After hasty consultations, the heads of state decided to keep the current commission in place as caretaker until another election can be held at the next summit in Malawi at the end of June.
A committee was formed to set election rules and solicit other candidates. Diplomats say the committee will also decide whether Ping or Zuma would be allowed to run in that election. Sources close to both candidates indicate they probably would stand aside and let others run.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana Mashabane cast the outcome as a victory, saying it had succeeded in ousting Ping, who has been blamed for the organization's slow and weak response to the recent crises in Libya and Ivory Coast.
“The outcome is that the incumbent chair lost. And in terms of the rules, he had to vacate the seat,” she said.
Mashabane said the result was an indication of widespread dissatisfaction with an organization that former AU Chairman and South African President Thabo Mbeki once said was dedicated to Africa's renaissance.
“We think the political message that has been sent out there is that African leaders want change,” Mashabane added.
The outcome of the race is also seen as a blow to South Africa, which invested heavily in Dlamini-Zuma's candidacy.
Analyst Mehari Maru of the Institute for Security Studies says the South Africans violated an unwritten rule that none of the continent's Big Five powers should seek a leadership post in the AU.
“South Africa, based on speculation and their aggressive election [campaign], thought they would get it," said Maru. "A prior consultation with countries would have saved it from this surprise."
But Maru says the big loser will be the African Union, which is likely to suffer from a leadership vacuum for the next several months.
“Now we have a commission by default which doesn't enjoy the confidence of the member states,” he said.
The normally talkative Ping declined comment at a post-summit news conference, saying that his voice was strained after long days of negotiations.