By Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Greens on Saturday elected a former environment minister and an east German Lutheran to spearhead their campaign for next year's federal elections, when they have solid chances of returning to government.
The two campaign leaders reflect the broadening appeal of Germany's third largest party beyond left-wing eco-warriors to more centrist voters, posing a threat to the two larger parties and especially to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
"This is a positive result for the Greens, representing all party factions, both the old and the new, the central political value of ecology as well as middle-class values," said political scientist Gero Neugebauer.
The Greens are currently in third place in polls behind Merkel's conservatives and the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), possibly making them kingmakers in the next elections.
Both Juergen Trittin, 58, and Katrin Goering-Eckardt, 46, are seen as moderates within the party. The similarities though between Goering-Eckardt, deputy president of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, and Merkel are uncanny.
Both women grew up in former communist east Germany. Goering-Eckardt holds a senior position within Germany's Evangelical church, while Merkel's father was a Lutheran pastor. Both are seen as softly-spoken and consensus-oriented.
"Goering-Eckardt poses a danger for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), and she is also able to broaden geographically the Greens' appeal to east Germans," said Neugebauer.
Goering-Eckardt said she wanted to fight for a more just society and more solidarity, and senior Greens member Steffi Lemke described her as a "lawyer for the poorest in society".
It was the first time a party in Germany determined its campaign leaders through a grass-roots vote. With the participation rate at 61 percent, the vote may have helped rally the Greens' 60,000 members, analysts said.
GREEN GOES MAINSTREAM
Founded three decades ago by rebels from the 1968 student movement, 'ban-the-bomb' peaceniks, ecologists and feminists, the Greens got their first taste of power from 1998 to 2005 as partners to Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD).
It was then that party veteran and onetime communist Trittin, from northwest Germany, became environment minister.
Since then Trittin, now parliamentary floor leader for the Greens and a leading voice of the left, has engaged more with foreign and financial policy, and is reportedly interested in becoming finance minister in 2013.
Over the past year, he has expressed strong support for a Greens decision to push for higher taxes on the rich and for a European debt redemption fund. Goering-Eckardt focuses on domestic policy.
The Greens saw a new surge in popularity over the past two years. A strong run of local elections gave them a presence in all 16 regional assemblies for the first time as well as their first state premier, Winfried Kretschmann, who ousted the CDU in conservative Baden-Wuerttemberg.
The progressive "greening" of German politics, with even Merkel converted to the anti-nuclear cause after the disaster at Fukushima and now in a hurry to shut down atomic power plants, has given the party broad appeal in the mainstream
Support for the Greens jumped to historic highs of 15-20 percent in polls after the Fukushima disaster, but dropped thereafter as they struggled to differentiate themselves from the two big parties. It is polling around 14 percent, after scoring 10.7 percent in the last elections in 2009.
While the Greens have traditionally favored a leftist so-called "red-green" alliance with the SPD, they have recently mentioned a possible coalition with Merkel's conservatives.
Nonetheless, this option is not yet seen as broadly accepted by the party base, and Trittin said on Saturday he wanted "a coalition of SPD and Greens".
(Edited by Jason Webb)