SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria nominated its European commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, on Wednesday for the post of United Nations Secretary-General and withdrew support from its previous candidate Irina Bokova.
Georgieva, a vice-president of the Commission who is responsible for sorting out the EU's budget after Britain's vote to leave the bloc, has a better chance to become the first woman to head the global body, Bulgaria's prime minister said.
However Bokova, director-general of the United Nations' cultural arm UNESCO, said she would stay in the race to replace Ban Ki-moon after coming sixth among nine contenders in the latest round of voting at the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
Announcing the decision to switch Bulgaria's support to Georgieva, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov told the cabinet: "We consider this will be a more successful nomination."
Nearly a third of the 193 U.N. member states, led by Colombia, and civil society groups have pushed for a female secretary-general. The nomination of the highly-regarded Georgieva could revive their fading hopes, diplomats said.
Georgieva, 63, a former World Bank economist, said she would present her credentials and vision for the top U.N. job to member states. If her bid is successful she would also be the first secretary-general from eastern Europe to take the post.
"I am deeply honored by the decision of the Government of my country to put my name forward for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations," she said in a statement.
The EU Commission has granted Georgieva a month's leave while she seeks election, a spokesman said on Wednesday. Guenther Oettinger, the German commissioner who handles digital affairs, will step in for October to cover her portfolio, the EU budget and human resources.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov said U.N. procedure did not allow for a country to withdraw a nomination and that Bokova would have to decide how to proceed.
Sofia had said it would reconsider its support for Bokova if she did not come first or second in the latest ballot.
But Bokova, who has served as Bulgarian ambassador to France and Monaco and briefly as acting foreign minister in a Socialist government in the 1990s, said on Twitter in the account IrinaForUN: "Grateful to you all who support me and fully committed to continue the race for #NextSG!@She4SG."
Prior to Georgieva's nomination, Bokova told a Bulgarian newspaper she saw no reason to quit the race and said the nomination of a second Bulgarian candidate would only hurt the chances of both.
Her replacement angered Bulgaria's opposition Socialist party, which said it would try to build support for a parliamentary no-confidence vote in Borisov's center-right government over its foreign policy.
In Monday's secret ballot, the fifth in the process, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres remained in the lead. The 15-member Security Council will continue holding secret ballots in a bid to reach consensus on a candidate that it then recommends to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly for election.
The next secret ballot is scheduled for Oct 5. South Korea's Ban is due to step down at the end of 2016 after serving two five-year terms.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Gareth Jones