* Small centre-right anti-bailout party rising in polls
* Independent Greeks hoping to find way into government
* With Syriza set for victory, party sees role as “safety valve”
By James Mackenzie and George Georgiopoulos
ATHENS, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The anti-bailout Independent Greeks party has emerged as a potential coalition partner for Syriza should the leftists win Sunday’s election, as polls predict.
Although it is a party of the centre-right formed by rebels from Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy, the Independent Greeks share Syriza’s opposition to the terms of Greece’s 240-billion-euro bailout by international lenders.
For weeks, the party, which had 12 deputies in the last legislature, had looked unlikely to get past the threshold needed to enter parliament, but since Jan. 15, all but two of 18 opinion polls have given it at least the 3 percent needed.
Syriza has widened its lead over the ruling conservatives in the run up to polling day but it remains unclear whether it will have enough votes to govern alone.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has urged Greeks to give his party outright victory and has been careful to avoid naming potential coalition partners, although the communist KKE party has ruled out an alliance.
Tsipras has unnerved financial markets with a pledge to overturn austerity and demands a debt write-off from European partners. But his message has resonated with Greeks struggling with unemployment over 25 percent and wage and pension cuts.
Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos, a former deputy shipping minister who broke away from Samaras in 2012, says the bailout by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, has reduced Greece to the status of a debt colony.
“We will never go as beggars on our knees to (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel, we will go standing tall as Greeks do. The Greek people are fighting united to restore national sovereignty and dignity,” he said in Friday’s campaign speech.
The Independent Greeks differ from Syriza on many traditionally conservative issues, pledging to crack down on illegal immigration and defend the close links between the Orthodox Church and the state. But in other ways the party could be as comfortable a fit as To Potami, the untested new centrist party often seen as Syriza’s most likely ally.
Its anti-bailout line is much tougher than the pro-Europe rhetoric of To Potami. It wants to wipe out a large part of the debt, which is equivalent to 175 percent of economic output, and cut high levels of taxation, with tax incentives to attract investment, create jobs and provide funding to small companies.
Kammenos’ ambitions are wider than merely getting into parliament. “The dilemma is what do the people want, a government with the arrogance of an absolute majority or a national unity government with Independent Greeks being the guarantors of tomorrow?” he said in his speech.
A campaign advertisement showing Kammenos helping a small boy called Alexis to avoid derailing his model train illustrates the role he wants to play in a Syriza-led government.
“We will be the safety valve for the country,” he said. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)