* Main opposition party may seek independent support
* Expectation is still coalition govt with Labour Party
* Next parliament could see record no of independents
By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Ten years ago Luke “Ming” Flanagan sent 500 cannabis joints to Irish politicians as part of his campaign to legalise the drug. By the end of this week he could hold the balance of power in parliament.
Friday’s election is the first in Europe to be dominated by the debt crisis and the electorate is in a vicious mood, keen to punish the ruling Fianna Fail party and potentially reward the country’s main opposition, Fine Gael, with a shot at single-party government for the first time in its near 80-year history.
With Ireland under pressure to prove to international investors it can work its way through a bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, most political analysts expect the centre-right Fine Gael to go into coalition with the centre-left Labour Party, its usual bedfellow, for the sake of stability. [ID:nLDE71D19B]
If Fine Gael comes close to the 83 seats needed for a majority in the 166-seat lower house, there is a chance it might seek the support of independents to make up the numbers.
Potential king-makers are an unlikely bunch, from a pro-cannabis campaigner to a former stockbroker from leafy south county Dublin and a flat-cap-wearing county councillor who canvasses outside Sunday mass from the back of a truck.
“I’ll listen to absolutely anybody other than Fianna Fail,” said Flanagan, mayor of the western town of Roscommon and nicknamed “Ming” after his goatee beard and formerly shaved head attracted comparisons to the comic book character “Ming the Merciless”.
“It depends what they are willing to offer the people of this country and the people of my constituency but I won’t look for something that will temporarily benefit the people of Roscommon and South Leitrim yet ultimately hang them.”
More than 230 people are running as independents, more than double the figure at the last election in 2007 thanks to widespread anger with mainstream politicians.
Opinion polls suggest as many as 20, a record number and including Flanagan, could win.
Six of the main contenders told Reuters they would consider supporting Fine Gael and, with one vouching for another two more, enough independents may be able to put the centre-right party into power if they can translate opinion poll gains into votes.
Traditionally, independent candidates focus on local issues but Flanagan is keen to distance himself from Jackie Healy-Rae, one of two independent lawmakers who were viewed as holding the last administration to ransom in exchange for their support.
Michael Lowry, the other independent MP who propped up the previous coalition, said he would be willing to support his former party in government.
Lowry resigned as a Fine Gael government minister in 1996 after it was revealed a tycoon had paid for the renovation of his home. Fine Gael barred him for representing the party in the 1997 election so he stood as an independent.
Healy-Rae, whose support for December’s record austerity budget depended on a 40-bed hospital being built in his constituency, is not running this time but his son Michael is and would consider supporting Fine Gael. [ID:nLDE6A31NM] [ID:nLDE71B0EU]
While Ireland’s creditors at the IMF and EU will be keen to avoid the government hanging by a thread again as it pushes through reforms, one current independent lawmaker says he and others could help bring in a period of stability.
“People have this idea that independents can’t make agreements and stick to them. The only reason I fell out was because they crossed the red line,” said Finian McGrath, a Dublin-based MP who withdrew his support for the last government after it tried to abolish free healthcare for the over-70s.
However, while high unemployment and public dismay at the government’s handling of the economic crisis may have shifted the demands of independent candidates to jobs and political reform, they remain high priorities to potential suitors.
Flanagan said he would only support a new government if it fought an EU ban on turf cutting, while McGrath would demand that health services, particularly for the disabled, be protected from cuts in further austerity drives.
Elsewhere Sean Canney, tipped by bookmakers to win a seat in the west of the country, wants elections to Ireland’s upper house, the Senate, to be deferred until a referendum is held on its future and says Dublin must force holders of bank debt to bear losses.
Mattie McGrath, a former Fianna Fail MP running against his own party in the county of Tipperary, wants non-elected ministers and would like to see business people such as Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary in the cabinet.
Other contenders want nothing to do with Fine Gael
“I wouldn’t go into government with Fine Gael, I think their policies are so similar to Fianna Fail, it’s not funny,” said Mick Wallace, a builder and political activist.
The likely success of other left-leaning independents, like a failure of Fine Gael to win at least 75 of the 166 seats that would allow it to consider governing with independents, could limit the party’s post-election options. (Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Andrew Dobbie)