By Aaron Maasho and Yara Bayoumy
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The African Union failed to elect a new head on Monday, highlighting the weakness of a group criticized for slow decision-making during political turmoil on the continent last year.
Former South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was up against incumbent commission chairman Jean Ping of Gabon, who failed to win an outright majority in four rounds of voting.
The commission is the AU secretariat's top organ and the chair its public face.
Smaller countries said Zuma's candidacy broke an unwritten rule that the continent's dominant states do not contest the leadership. "South Africa's decision to do so turns everything upside down," a West African delegate said.
"You could say they may have not voted for Ping but the smaller countries are skeptical of the big countries," he said.
Analysts said Ping's attempts to juggle the diverse views of its 54 members had hampered decision-making on Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
"The weakness that Jean Ping had was not being forthcoming in putting his own opinion... the commission is a bureaucracy and it doesn't have its own position but that of member states," Mahari Taddele Maru, an African Union analyst at International Security Studies said.
The AU recognized the National Transitional Council as Libya's de facto government long after most European nations, the U.S. and Nigeria. A Libyan delegate, describing the AU as "indecisive up to the last moment," said the commission should be given more authority.
A member of the AU's communications team said after hours of deliberation in the new Chinese-built AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital that Ping had won 32 votes in the last round, four short of the number needed for a majority.
The African Union has not yet made an official announcement.
SOUTH AFRICAN ROLE
South Africa, which has complained the United Nations needs to pay more attention to the pan-African body, especially when it comes to African crises, had pushed Zuma's candidacy hard, saying the AU needed the strong leadership she could give it.
"The incumbent could not win a two-thirds majority after four rounds so this is very very clear, that leaders of this continent want change and they want it now," said South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.
She said the rules dictated that the deputy chairman, Kenya's Erastus Mwencha, would become interim chair until the next round of elections that would probably take place in six months at the next summit in Malawi.
South African President Jacob Zuma's failure to secure a majority for Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife, after Ping's much criticized tenure dealt a blow to South Africa, which regards itself as an emerging power championing African causes, but is seen by some other states as a step behind global affairs.
Envoys at climate talks in Durban last year criticized the largest economy in Africa for failing to get delegates to agree on a deal before two weeks of talks ended.
Pretoria also blocked a visit by the Dalai Lama to attend the 80th birthday of South African hero Desmond Tutu.
"President Zuma has been criticized for a weak foreign policy on Africa so he had to show his direction. This will be a crisis for him, that his first attempt to come up with a way to repair his policy has been defeated," Maru said.
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Duncan Miriri and Philippa Fletcher)