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Handicapping the Nobel Peace Prize

Will the Nobel Peace Prize committee make a political statement?

Observers of the Nobel Peace Prize selection process have their eyes on Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, Chinese dissident Hu Jia and the rock star Bono. (Photos, left to right: Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters, courtesy of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize, Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

OSLO, Norway — This could be the year a pop star gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Or it may go to a green campaigner to grease United Nations climate talks ahead of the Copenhagen summit. Or the committee might reward a woman, something it has done only 12 times in its 108-year history.

The only certainty is that at 11 a.m. local time on Friday, when Thorbjoern Jagland steps into a third-floor salon at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo to announce the winner of the Peace Prize for 2009, he and his colleagues will have tried to influence a tricky political situation somewhere on the planet.

“This is a committee that wants to affect current processes,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo and a close observer of the prize.

The field is wide open this year as there is no obvious contender. The prize may be awarded to Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator who has argued in favor of a negotiated settlement between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. It could go to Ghazi bin Muhammad, a Jordanian prince who promotes interfaith dialogue. It might even go to Barack Obama, who is on the list of 205 nominees — the most ever nominated.

It is tricky to guess the thinking of the committee members as they do not publish the list of nominees until 50 years later. And they are not the only people who can nominate winners: The group with the power to nominate includes parliamentarians, former laureates and academics. These others sometimes do reveal their choices.

Speculation has centered on Chinese dissidents, given that 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

Bookmaker PaddyPower rates Hu Jia, a Chinese activist who has campaigned for democracy and the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, as a favorite. Another contender could be Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, who has been named in previous years as a likely laureate.

Some experts say, however, that such a decision is unlikely this year as two members of the five-strong Norwegian Nobel Committee are members of the outgoing Norwegian parliament. “It is more difficult for them to challenge strong national interests,” Harpviken said. “It will have an impact on the chances of Chinese dissidents.”

Other close observers suggest that the committee will this year go for a “traditional” laureate working for conflict resolution and prevention or human rights. "The Nobel committee is under a certain amount of pressure to return to a classical interpretation of peace," Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a key player in the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, told Agence France-Presse.