OSLO (Reuters) - The committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize demoted its chairman on Tuesday, for the first time in the 114-year history of the award after his right-wing opponents won a majority on the prestigious panel.
Thorbjoern Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister of the Labour Party who has chaired the five-member panel since 2009, will now be a mere member of the committee that has received a near-record 276 nominees for the 2015 prize.
Kaci Kullmann Five, a former leader of Norway’s ruling Conservative Party, will take over after right-wing parties gained a new representative, giving them a 3-2 majority to make the unprecedented demotion at the first meeting of 2015.
“The committee chooses a leader every year. This year is a new committee,” Kullmann Five said, declining to give reasons for ousting Jagland. “Jagland has been a good leader for six years.”
Right-wing parties, which won a parliamentary election in 2013 to oust a Labour-led government, have long disliked Jagland, who was prime minister from 1996-97.
Jagland has been a lightning rod for criticism of awards including to Barack Obama in 2009 - less than a year after the U.S. president took office - to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010 and to the European Union in 2012.
Jagland is also head of the 47-nation Council of Europe, which promotes democracy in Europe, and some right-wing parliamentarians say that amounts to a conflict of interest in deciding the $1 million Nobel prize.
Jagland’s demotion could make an award critical of President Vladimir Putin more likely, since Russia is a Council member.
No serving chair has ever been ousted since the awards were first made in 1901, even with shifting political majorities. The committee is appointed in line with the strength of parties in Norway’s parliament.
“I don’t like it,” Asle Sveen, a historian and Nobel expert, said of Jagland’s demotion, saying China might interpret Jagland’s removal as a semi-apology for the prize to Liu.
Kullmann Five, who has been on the committee since 2003, denied any concession to Beijing, saying: “I wholeheartedly supported the award to Liu Xiaobo.”
Still, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, seeking to limit damage to relations with China, declined to meet Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama when he visited Norway last year.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had seen the report about the committee and its chairman but did “not understand the situation”. She did not comment further.
Reporting by Alister Doyle; Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING; Editing by Gareth Jones, Robert Birsel