By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Next May's elections to the European Parliament promise to be among the most closely watched since the 1970s, with many in Europe expected to show their frustration with the economic crisis by voting for anti-EU or protest parties.
While that analysis has become the received wisdom, political experts are less convinced, suggesting that while there may be an increase in protest votes, it's unlikely to be anywhere near as large as some have predicted.
Earlier this year, there was talk among officials of a protest vote of up to 30 percent, meaning up to 250 of the 751 seats in parliament being taken by candidates from non-mainstream parties on the far-left or far-right.
Such a large protest vote, the analysis went, could lead to serious disruptions in parliament, making it much harder to forge a majority on critical legislation, even if the protest candidates were of widely divergent views and not united.
But more recent analysis suggests the anti-European vote, while substantial, will be more contained, and fears of a vast surge in support for the far-right across the 28 countries in the European Union may be overstated, even if parties such as Britain's UKIP and Finland's True Finns may do well.
"Mainstream Eurosceptics have been around for a while now and have never been truly obstructive forces," Cas Mudde, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia and an expert in Europe's right-wing populist parties, wrote last month.
"While the upcoming European elections will undoubtedly see an unprecedented success for 'anti-EU populist' parties, the next European Parliament will remain a bastion of pro-EU and soft Eurosceptic forces, with all the power to enforce its will on the tiny minority of disorganized dissenters."
Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium who is running to be the top candidate for the Liberal alliance in the elections, believes the vote, which takes place across the EU from May 22-25, will produce other unexpected outcomes.
"Because everyone now expects this populist surge, it won't be a surprise on the night if it actually does happen," he told a Reuters seminar on the future of Europe on Thursday.
"I actually think the election will produce other surprises; it won't be the far-right or far-left protest vote."
BIG PARTIES TOGETHER?
Verhofstadt, who has the backing of parties in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands but must overcome the challenge of Olli Rehn, the EU's economics commissioner, to be named the sole Liberal candidate for European Commission president, is hoping his party can hold its own come May.
At the last elections in 2009, the Liberals were the third largest bloc, behind the dominant centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and the centre-left Social Democrats, securing 11.5 percent of the seats in parliament.
In Britain, the Liberals are the junior party in the Conservative-led coalition, a position that has hit their popularity and may hurt them in Europe. Overall, polls suggest the Liberals will remain the third largest party after May's vote, even if their representation declines slightly.
The leading party is forecast to remain the EPP, although it could lose around 40-50 seats, while the Socialists should gain a fair number of seats and solidify their position as the second-largest presence across Europe.
The key question is where that leaves the 'non-mainstream' groups - the far-right and far-left parties, or movements such as Germany's anti-euro AfD or Italy's Five Star, that are not part of the traditional five or so largest parliamentary blocs.
Recent polling by Gallup suggests far-right 'protest' candidates may secure around 30 seats and the far-left as many as 60, while there are other far-left and far-right elements tucked away among the more traditional blocs.
With all allegiances considered, there may be a raw 'protest' element across the political spectrum of up to 150 seats - potentially the third-largest presence in parliament but not a coordinated one or one that agrees on many policies.
The bottom line is that next year's election result may oblige the three biggest blocs to overcome traditional differences and coordinate more closely on legislation.
"We're going to have to work much better together," said Verhofstadt, who has at times been seen as a divisive force because of his ardently federalist ambitions for Europe.
That may be a big ask ahead of the elections, with party divisions critical to securing votes. But once the results are in, a "grand coalition" among elements of the big three big blocs, all of them broadly pro-EU, may well emerge.
(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Charlie Dunmore)