Among them are two Chinese dissidents, Hu Kia and Wei Jingsheng, whose victory would likely draw vocal protests from the Chinese government. Hu, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is a human rights and AIDS activist who went to prison for three-and-a-half years for "subversion," while Wei spent 17 years in prison and eventually moved to the United States.
Such an award would have particular resonance as 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as 60 years since the the People's Republic of China was created. But there are reports that the Nobel committee is wary of challenging a major power such as China or Russia; some speculate that Hu and Wei, along with other activists like Gao Zhisheng, could thus lose out, as they did last year.
The leading candidate according to the oddsmakers at paddypower.com is an Afghan: Human rights activist Seema Samar, who is listed at 9/2. A medical doctor, Samar has seen her husband arrested, had to flee the country for her safety, and has been threatened with death for questioning sharia law. The U.N. special envoy to Darfur in Africa, Samar has been an outspoken advocate for women's rights.
Another top candidate is Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba, tapped by CNN as the frontrunner; Cordoba, the head of Colombians for Peace, has tried to end the conflict between her country's government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. She has secured the release of 16 hostages and was kidnapped herself in 1999; critics have complained, however, that she is too close to rebels.
Among the most familiar names on the list is Morgan Tsvangirai (pictured at top), the Zimbabwean opposition leader and prime minister who has faced arrest and intimidation at the hands of President Robert Mugabe; Tsvangirai worked out a tenuous power-sharing agreement with Mugabe following the disputed 2008 election.
Also among the favorites is Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan; the Western-educated Islamic scholar has been a leading proponent of interfaith dialogue and led an effort in 2005 dubbed a "theological counter-attack against terrorism."
Eighty-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, a longtime government critic who has faced imprisonment and exile, is also said to be in the running. The head of the banned United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, he has been under house arrest for eight years.
U.S. president Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are among the nominees, as is former president Bill Clinton, though they are unlikely picks; paddypower.com puts the odds on Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton at 14/1.
Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list; handicapping the Nobel Peace Prize has long proven to be extraordinarily difficult, in part because the process is so secretive. The list of nominees for the $1.4 million is not released until 50 years after the award is given, and this year there are reportedly 205 of them, the most ever.
Also complicating matters is the fact that the prize is in the hands of just five people elected by the Norwegian parliament. As The Star notes, Geir Lundestad, secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, once publicly wondered why "the world take[s] such an interest in what a committee of five internationally relatively unknown Norwegians may decide about who has done the most for peace."
Often, committee members seem to be interested as much in affecting social change or protecting dissidents as they are with rewarding good works; as Peace Magazine editor Metta Spencer told The Star, imprisoned Burmese pro-democracy activist and politician Aung San Suu Kyi might not be alive today had she not won the award in 1991.
The impulse to use the prize as a tool is why someone like Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad is seen as a likely candidate – the Nobel imprimatur would give a boost to his efforts against sectarian violence and better interfaith relations.
Past examples of awards seemingly meant to boost a particular agenda include the 2007 victory by environmental activist and former vice president Al Gore, and the 1989 win by the Dalai Lama following Tiananmen Square. Still, the prize is sometimes awarded largely simply for a lifetime of work, as was the case last year when Finn Martti Ahtisaari took the honor.