updated 10/11/2006 7:04:31 PM ET 2006-10-11T23:04:31

Why would any decision made by five low-key Norwegians meeting in a back room in the capital have global consequences?

Because they will decide whether a former Finnish president or a global charity or even a rock star railing against poverty in developing countries should win the coveted Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

Speculation has been rife with names ranging from Oprah Winfrey to veteran peace negotiators such as ex-Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who helped foment a deal between Indonesia’s government and Aceh separatists last year.

Ahtisaari brokered the talks between the two through his Crisis Management Initiative, and oddsmakers say that he, along with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the Free Aceh movement, could share the annual prize.

Others touted as possible winners are Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyev and Chechen lawyer Lida Yusupova; the British-based charity Oxfam; Chinese dissident Rebiya Kadeer, who has fought for the rights of Uighur Muslims in China; and even anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

'Distrust of glitzy and glamorous'
Dan Smith, a former head of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, said the committee reflects a fundamental Norwegian reserve and modesty.

He said a little known peace or human rights activist would be more likely to win than high-profile stars such as Bono, Bob Geldof or Winfrey — all mentioned in this year’s speculation.

“’Norwegianness’ is a kind of distrust of the glitzy and glamorous,” he said by telephone from London.

The five members of the committee offer no hints, and the subjects of their debates and secret meetings are never leaked. They won’t even say who was nominated. The only tidbit they will offer is how many nominations were sent in ahead of the Feb. 1 deadline: 191 this year.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement, speculation, betting and wild guessing abound, often fed and misled by regional biases.

“This is a global prize awarded by Norwegians,” said Geir Lundestad, the committee’s nonvoting secretary. “The five committee members have Norwegian values, which, in many cases, are also international values.”

Those values include international liberalism, unabashed support for the United Nations, humanitarian efforts, international cooperation, human rights and the total rejection of nuclear weapons.

The committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament for six-year terms but does not answer to it. Members, often retired politicians currently with an average age of about 62, are appointed based on the size of parties in the Parliament.

“For the first time in history, there are five political parties represented on the committee,” Lundestad said.

They decide upon the winner over the course of five or so secret meetings through the year through consensus. The committee itself abides no outside interference, disdaining campaigns or petitions for a candidate.

Since the latest appointments in 2003, women hold a 3-2 majority, causing political analyst Bernt Aardal and others to wonder if recent choices since then have reflected the new make up.

Only a dozen women have won the Nobel Peace prize since it was first awarded in 1901. Two of those were in the past three years: Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi in 2003 and Kenya environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004.

Gap between Norwegians and the global view
One of the clearest examples of the gap between the Norwegians and the global view came in 2003, when most observers predicted that the then-ailing Pope John Paul II would win the prize as a way to honor his 25-year efforts to reconcile the world’s major religions.

Yet in this liberal and overwhelming Lutheran country, the pope seemed a longshot. Norwegians are firm supporters of the rights of women and homosexuals, endorse contraception, and permit abortion — views that were not shared by John Paul II.

“The pope was one of the clearest cases (of mistaken speculation) when you know Norwegian policy and society,” Aardal said.

In attempting to guess the winner, it also helps to know who is on the committee.

On the political right: Inger-Marie Ytterhorn, 65, of the anti-tax, anti-immigration Party of Progress, and former Conservative leader Kaci Kullman Five, 55. On the left is Social Democrat Sissel Roenbekk, 56, a former Labor party government minister, and far-left theology professor Berge Furre, 69, of the Socialist Left party.

In the middle is committee chairman and medicine professor Ole Danbolt Mjoes, 67, a Christian Democrat, devout Lutheran and accomplished peace activist.

The committee also has expanded its idea of the Peace Prize to include honoring pro-democracy efforts, human rights, the environment and humanitarian aid.

“What is hard to know is what they are thinking,” Aardal said. “What is their peace concept?”

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