VATICAN CITY – In the conclave that elected Pope John Paul II (search), it took an Austrian cardinal to break an impasse among Italians to pave the way for the first Polish pontiff.
Call them power brokers, kingmakers or "great electors," certain cardinals have historically played a key role in deciding papal elections, finding consensus among the various ideological, linguistic and geographic factions of the Roman Catholic Church.
In next week's conclave to elect John Paul's successor, Vatican watchers have singled out German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (search), who turns 78 on Saturday. His conservative policies in line with John Paul's are seen as making him a possible pope or a prestigious figure to rally around.
In an interesting contrast, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Thursday pointed to the retired Milan archbishop, 78-year-old Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (search), as a figure to put the "brakes" on a Ratzinger candidacy. Martini could gather enough votes to block Ratzinger and allow another cardinal to emerge, according to this scenario.
But nationality is not necessarily the decisive factor. By Corriere della Sera's account, several German cardinals would be willing to join in a move to block Ratzinger because of his policies. Some have pleaded unsuccessfully for years for the Vatican to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion in the church.
Martini, reportedly ailing and considered too liberal to be elected pope, could be a true kingmaker.
Such powerful figures as Cardinal Angelo Sodano (search), the No. 2 Vatican official, and Cardinal Camillio Ruini, vicar for Rome under John Paul, are also seen as "great electors."
Because the cardinals are sworn to secrecy about the conclave, no authoritative information is available about the voting. But some accounts filter out from the closeted gathering, often second hand from cardinals who are not allowed to participate because they are over 80 and don't feel bound by the secrecy oath.
In the months before John Paul's April 2 death at age 84, as the pontiff was clearly weakening, the outlines of divisions began to emerge in an eventual conclave that brings together 115 cardinals.
Italian cardinals seeking to regain the papacy after John Paul broke their 455-year monopoly could be pitted against Latin Americans, seeking to elect one of their own for the first time in recognition of their flock who make up nearly half the world's 1 billion Catholics.
Cardinals pushing a so-called "transitional pope" after a 26-year papacy could be blocked by those believing the dynamism John Paul brought to the church should not be slowed down.
"Some of the cardinals don't know each other so they're going to be listening to various people," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert. But he doesn't see any cardinal with the clout that was exercised in some past conclaves.
In the 1978 conclave that elected John Paul II, an impasse developed as two Italian cardinals, Giovanni Benelli and Giuseppe Siri, split the Italian vote.
At that point Austrian Cardinal Franz Koenig, highly respected for his work to protect Catholics in communist eastern Europe, stepped forward and championed the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, according to authoritative accounts.
Koenig forged a coalition to back the Polish cardinal, who had not been seen as a viable candidate before the conclave. He was able to gather enough votes with the help of other non-Italians.
At the time, Koenig once recalled, Poland's top churchman, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, voiced misgivings that the pontiff-to-be was "too young and too little-known."
The first signs that the College of Cardinals might turn to a non-Italian already were evident in the first conclave of 1978, following the death of Pope Paul VI.
However, according to later accounts, that possibility ended when Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider of Brazil mustered the votes of Third World cardinals to the then-patriarch of Venice, who became Pope John Paul I.
But after his sudden death 33 days after his election, Lorscheider joined Koenig in the second conclave of that year and pushed for Wojtyla.
In the past, not only cardinals but kings and emperors have performed the role of kingmaker.
In 1903, Pope Pius X's election came after Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph sent a letter to cardinals urging them not to vote for a candidate he perceived as pro-French. The emperor cited the "right of exclusion," an informal power many Catholic nations had acquired since the 16th century that allowed monarchs to veto one papal candidate.
Even some of the cardinals themselves would represent the interests of monarchs or powerful noble families, and their voices carried great weight in the conclave.