Independents pick new leader before Iceland polls

REYKJAVIK, March 29 (Reuters) - Iceland's main opposition party, the Independents, elected a 40-year-old lawyer on Sunday to lead the party into early elections on the crisis-hit North Atlantic island next month.

Bjarni Benediktsson was elected by the Independence Party's national conference, beating fellow parliament member Kristjan Juliusson, the conference chairman Sturla Bodvarsson said in a webcast from the gathering.

Benediktsson had been the favourite to take the helm of the party, which dominated Icelandic politics for decades until its coalition with the Social Democrats collapsed over its failure to avert a financial meltdown that has shattered the economy.

Opinion polls show the caretaker coalition of Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir's Social Democrats and the Left-Greens commanding a comfortable lead over the conservative Independents ahead of the snap elections called for April 25.

Benediktsson was seen as the candidate favoured by the Independence Party establishment. His family has been prominent in Icelandic business and politics for decades with several relatives having served in parliament.

He replaces former Prime Minister Geir Haarde who is leaving politics after 18 years in parliament, having been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus earlier this year.

Haarde this week apologised for being partly responsible for the events leading up to the collapse of Iceland's main commercial banks in October last year.

The financial meltdown has crippled the volcanic island's economy which is expected to contract by about 10 percent this year, while unemployment has soared. (Reporting by Omar Valdimarsson; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Jon Boyle)