By Francesco Guarascio
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Parliament elects a new speaker on Tuesday in an unusually hotly contested vote that could strengthen eurosceptic forces at a time when the EU faces British moves to leave and questions about its future role.
A divisive campaign and the end of the 'grand coalition' of the main parties is also likely to hamper the assembly, delaying lawmaking - another boon for anti-EU parties who portray the union as rigid and bureaucratic. Other sensitive matters facing the assembly include immigration and banking.
Conservative Antonio Tajani, 63, a close ally of Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, is the favorite as he can count on the support of the European People's Party, the largest grouping in parliament.
Unlike past appointments which were agreed in advance by the main parties, he faces a real challenger in socialist Gianni Pittella, 58, who is bidding to succeed Martin Schulz, also of the center-left. Last-minute maneuvers could yet propel to victory candidates from smaller groups.
Seven of the eight political groups of the legislature have fielded candidates, the exception being the United Kingdom Independence Party's (UKIP) grouping.
The speaker chairs debates in the European Parliament, which embraces deputies from the 28 states. He or she can play a key role in brokering agreements with the executive, the European Commission and national governments.
Britain is expected to formally notify Brussels in March of its intention to leave the EU following the results of a June referendum. The negotiations that follow seem likely to raise some tensions not only between the EU and Britain but within the EU itself, as well as within Britain.
Breaking from a decade-long convention whereby the socialists and the conservatives take turns to hold the high-profile job, Pittella has vowed to stimulate genuine debate and dispel the idea that all main parties in the parliament are part of a reform-shy establishment.
But his bid may turn into a boost to eurosceptics, who could play an unprecedented king-maker role in the uncertain vote.
Tajani may need the support of lawmakers from Marine Le Pen's far-right grouping or those of UKIP to be elected.
If Tajani wins, the conservatives would hold all three EU top jobs. Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg heads the EU's Brussels-based executive, the Commission, and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk chairs the European Council, which groups the national governments.
Socialists have said that if Pittella does not win in the Parliament, they will push for a reshuffle of the key posts.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Ralph Boulton)