It might be the world's most exclusive election, where 120 elaborately garbed elderly men employing ancient rituals amid great ceremony set the course for a sixth of the world's population, the 1.2 billion people who call themselves Roman Catholic, writres Barney Zwartz in The Age.
It comes around, on average, every seven years, one of which will be 2013, thanks to the dramatic announcement by Benedict XVI on Monday that at 8pm on February 28 he will cease to be Pope. By Easter, according to a Vatican spokesman, the 266th pope will be installed.
And this conclave offers the strongest likelihood yet that he may come from the developing world of Latin America, Asia or Africa - the first non-European Pope (if you don't count the Roman Empire).
While there are several strong candidates, known as papabile, none stands out. Lobbying, and what in Australia might be called factional deals, will be vital.
What the cardinals decide are the most urgent issues will determine their choice. At 78, Benedict was not initially considered a serious candidate in 2005, but acceptance of his view that fighting secularism and decline in Europe was a top priority - combined with some impressive performances as dean of the college of cardinals - led to his election.
If the cardinals think that the loss of a European generation to what Benedict called ''the culture of death'' and tackling the expanding scourge of clergy sex abuse are top priority, they will probably go for a European, in which case the next Pope is likely to be Italian.
If they are moved by arguments that the Catholic centre of gravity has shifted south to Latin America and Africa, and that the most vital challenges are poverty, social justice, AIDS and increasing persecution of Catholic minorities in Asia and the Middle East, then a non-European Pope becomes more probable.
Picking a papal winner is harder than any horse race: there is no form guide, and once the race gets serious the runners get tight-lipped, apart from Italian cardinals, who leak like sieves to Italian journalists.
Some cardinals belong to fluid alliances based on common theology or other interests, while others might be called company men, loyal to the Pope and the institution. The Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy where many cardinals work, is riddled with factions and intrigues, as the leaking of a stack of papal documents last year demonstrated.
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