As the secretive Nobel Prize committees huddle for their final deliberations to select the 2010 winners, the question looms large: Are the jurors preparing another Obama-style shocker?
After the unusual ruckus caused by honoring Barack Obama less than nine months into his presidency, Nobel experts believe the peace prize committee will opt for a more low-profile choice.
"I do not foresee a similar level of risk-taking as last year," says Kristian Berg Harpviken, Director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Front-runners in the guessing game for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize include Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina.
Harpviken, whose institute has made it a tradition to speculate on peace winners, said his top choice was Sima Samar, an Afghan women's rights activist who leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
His other picks were the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma — a Norway-based shortwave radio station and website run by exiled Myanmar dissidents — and the Special Court for Sierra Leone set up in 2002.
The institute is not linked to the Nobel committee and does not profess to have any inside information. It has a decent track record in guessing Nobel winners, though rarely taps them in the right year.
Before the peace prize is announced on Friday in Oslo, the other Nobel panels in Stockholm will have announced the 2010 winners for medicine, physics, chemistry and literature. The economics award will be announced on Oct. 11.
Literature prize juror Peter Englund told The Associated Press the winner of this year's award has already been selected and will be announced after a formal vote on Thursday.
The panel has been criticized for being too euro-centric, with most recent winners hailing from Europe. Englund has acknowledged that could be the result of "subconscious bias" — with the panelists finding it easier to relate to European writers.
"That is a problem," he said. "But we are aware of it."
If the panel looks beyond Europe this year, hot candidates could be South Korean poet Ko Un, Algeria's Assia Djebar, or Israeli writer Amos Oz, a perennial favorite among bettors. Among American writers, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo frequently figure in Nobel speculation.
Ismail Kadare of Albania or Sweden's own Tomas Transtromes could be options if the jury picks another European writer.
The Nobel Prizes, created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first handed out in 1901, five years after his death. Each award includes 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.5 million), a diploma and a gold medal.
Famous Nobel winners include Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. But most winners are relatively anonymous until they suddenly are catapulted into the global spotlight by a phone call from a Nobel Prize juror with a Scandinavian accent.
The peace prize jury stunned Nobel watchers last year by giving the prize to Obama, citing "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."
Jurors singled out Obama's efforts to heal the divide between the West and the Muslim world and scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe.
Too soon, said critics. A Gallup poll shortly after Obama won the award in October found 61 percent of Americans did not believe he deserved it. People were split along partisan lines on whether they were happy for him.
Harpviken said most observers questioned whether "this was the right prize at the right moment" and predicted the criticism would "weigh in heavily" on the prize committee's deliberations this year.
Arne Strand, deputy director of the Chr. Michelsens Institute, a development think tank in the west coast city of Bergen, said even a Chinese dissident might be too controversial, and expected a winner with a lower profile this year.
Geir Lundestad, the non-voting secretary of the peace prize jury, defended the choice of Obama last year, saying "in the committee there is a pretty good feeling about it."
He told AP the award generated "enormous attention and increased interest" for the Nobel Peace Prize, as shown by a record 237 individuals and organizations being nominated for this year's award.
While nominations are kept secret, the announcing parties sometimes reveal their picks.
This year, publicly announced candidates include Chinese dissidents Liu, Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng as well as Gannushkina and Memorial, the prominent Russian rights group she works with. There's also a campaign for the Internet to be recognized as a tool for peace, though it's unclear who would accept such a prize.
Irish betting firm Paddy Power this week had the lowest odds for Liu, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Gannushkina.
China has said giving the prize to a Chinese dissident would harm relations between Norway and China, but Lundestad dismissed the warning, saying the committee is independent from the Norwegian government.
As always Lundestad declined to comment on nominations but said that over time the committee seeks to achieve a certain geographical balance and make an effort to find female candidates. Of the 97 peace laureates to date, only 12 have been women.
Amland reported from Oslo, Norway.