October 2, 2014 / 1:38 PM / 3 years ago

Change looms for Nobel Peace Prize as chairman risks coup

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Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland speaks in Oslo City Hall during Nobel Peace Prize ceremony December 10, 2012.Heiko Jung /NTB scanpix

OSLO/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee risks a unprecedented demotion after announcing the 2014 winner next week, part of wider changes that could both tilt the award to the right and dim chances for future U.S. presidents to win.

The Nobel season of the world's most coveted awards, each worth $1.1 million, opens on Monday with the medicine or physiology prize followed by physics, chemistry, peace and economics. The date for the literature prize has not been set.

Pope Francis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, ex-U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who helps rape victims, are among bookmakers' favorites from a record field of 278 nominees for the peace prize.

In a shift that could influence future peace awards, Thorbjoern Jagland, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former Labor Prime Minister, risks being deposed by right-wing rivals after he announces the winner on Friday, Oct. 10.

Norway's parliament appoints the five-member committee and the Conservative-led coalition that won power in elections in 2013 will gain a 3-2 majority on the committee from 2015, reversing a 3-2 center-left majority under Jagland since 2009.

That could mean more prizes favored by Norway's right-wing, perhaps to little-known individuals fighting for democracy or human rights. Jagland seems to favor sweeping awards with a political flavor, including to U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 or the European Union in 2012.

Conservatives say Jagland has a conflict of interest since he is also Secretary-General of the 47-nation Council of Europe, which promotes human rights across the continent. It wants him to stay as a committee member, but not chair.

"The time has now come to create the necessary distance between the prize committee and politicians," said Janne Haaland Matlary of Oslo University, a former deputy foreign minister who is a member of the Conservative Party.

"A prize to a Russian dissident, which is a likely choice given the many human rights problems in Russia today, would most certainly create tensions between Russia and an organization like the Council," she said.

Unprecedented Demotion

Jagland says he has acted independently. The final choice of chairman is down to the committee members, who serve six-year terms.

No peace chairman has been demoted to a mere member since the first awards were made in 1901 under the will of Sweden's Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. The peace prize is announced in Oslo, all others in Stockholm.

Another big shift will be the retirement at the end of the year of Geir Lundestad, the director of the Nobel Institute since 1990 and a professor specializing in American history. He attends all committee meetings but has no vote.

Kristian Harpviken, head of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, detects Lundestad's influence behind an unusual run of U.S. prizes - to Obama, to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in 2007 and to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2002.

The departure of Lundestad is likely to shift focus from the United States, whose citizens and organizations have won about a quarter of all prizes, he said.

"The obvious thing, if anything, would be to discriminate against American candidates," he said, adding that future U.S. presidents would be unlikely to win.

A committee dominated by the Conservatives and their allies might mean "much more emphasis on human rights, freedom of expression. We could potentially see a turn towards prizes which acknowledge the utility of armed force."

It is hard to know what goes on in the prize committees - minutes of all prizes are only made public after 50 years.

Lundestad laughed off Harpviken's comments, saying "he has never been right" in trying to predict the winner. "Normally you would go out of business if you are never accurate."

He said the prize "could change, but within limits" under a right-wing majority.

Norwegians "love bridge-building, east and west, north and south, Jews and Palestinians. There is a broad consensus among Norwegians. That is why there really haven’t been that many dramatic shifts over time," he said.

That could complicate the idea of some Conservatives, he said, of allowing foreigners onto the committee. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan or Sweden's outgoing Foreign Minister Carl Bildt have been mentioned, but Lundestad said they would have different views and might be unable to come to all meetings.

Among other prizes, British bookmaker Ladbrokes has ranked Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Japanese author Haruki Murakami as favorites for the literature award.

Murakami is very popular in Japan, but has also become well known abroad for his works which deal with isolation and love and bring the surreal into everyday life.

Thiong’o, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, has been critical of injustices in Kenya and has emphasised the importance of Africans writing in native languages rather than English.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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