By John O'Donnell
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a fixture of Brussels politics for the past 25 years, won the backing of Europe's center-right parties on Friday in the race to become European Commission president.
Juncker, who lost office last year after 18 years as prime minister, beat French rival Michel Barnier, the EU's regulation chief, to become the European People's Party (EPP) top candidate for the European Parliament elections in May.
It puts Juncker, 59 and one of the region's most experienced deal brokers, in contention for the EU's most influential job, with oversight of legislation affecting 500 million Europeans.
Juncker is a consummate dealer in the world of European politics and also a divisive figure. As chairman of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers during much of the region's debt crisis, he once said it was necessary sometimes to lie and that he favored "secret, dark debates".
His win on Friday was not as resounding as some in his camp had hoped, indicating reservations even within his own political family that Juncker, once close to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, symbolizes old-school politics.
Juncker won 382 votes from EPP members in Dublin, while 245 voted for his rival.
A strong believer in Europe and federalism, he has tempered some of his positions to win over more of the EPP, including Merkel, with whom he has not always seen eye-to-eye.
"I did everything in my limited power to avoid the catastrophe, to direct our euro vessel through the heaviest storm since the great depression," he said.
Juncker will now go head-to-head against Social Democrat candidate Martin Schulz and the Liberals' Guy Verhofstadt for the Commission presidency.
Whichever group comes top in the European Parliament elections - polling suggests this will either be the Social Democrats or the EPP - will have first chance to try to get parliamentary backing to be Commission president.
The decision also depends on the EU's 28 national leaders. While Juncker may get support from many of the figures with whom he shared a negotiating table for nearly two decades, others, such as Britain's David Cameron, are not fans.
The idea of choosing lead candidates for Europe's main political groups is aimed at making the vote more relevant to citizens, who have turned out in ever smaller numbers to vote in European elections since the first were held in 1979.
It is also seen as vital in the face of growing support for far-left, far-right and anti-EU protest parties.
Part of a generation of old-school politicians, Juncker played a significant role in handling Europe's debt crisis.
He was caught up in a spying scandal in Luxembourg last year that led to the collapse of the coalition government and his departure as prime minister.
His Eurogroup successor, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, described him on Dutch television as a heavy drinker and smoker. Juncker dismissed the suggestions.
Juncker disarmed but often irritated peers with his dry sense of humor, speaking openly of having to lie to the media, discussing his problems with kidney stones and once patting the head of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"He's outdated, part of the old establishment and partly responsible for the crisis," Hannes Swoboda, leader of the rival center-left group in the European Parliament, told journalists earlier this week.
(Reporting by John O'Donnell; editing by Luke Baker and Andrew Roche)