By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Greens party picked two new leaders on Tuesday to spearhead talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives this week that could usher in a historic coalition government between the erstwhile political enemies.
The Greens' old leadership resigned en masse after suffering a debacle in Germany's September 22 election, when the party crashed to 8.4 percent from around 16 percent earlier in the year.
The 63 Greens members of parliament elected centrist Katrin Goering-Eckardt, 47, and left-winger Anton Hofreiter, 43, as co-leaders, replacing party veterans Juergen Trittin, 59, and Renate Kuenast, 57. The talks with Merkel are set for Thursday.
Last month's election confirmed Merkel's conservatives as Germany's dominant force but, with 311 of the 630 seats in the Bundestag lower house, they lack a majority. The main opposition Social Democrats (SPD) won 192 seats and the radical Left 64.
The Greens, the world's most influential pro-environment party after sharing power with the SPD in Europe's biggest economy from 1998 to 2005, had hoped before the election to win enough votes to form another centre-left coalition.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) have already held exploratory talks with the SPD and a right-left 'grand coalition' is still viewed as the most likely outcome.
But if those talks fail to gain traction, the Greens could yet end up in power with the CDU/CSU - though the omens are not very encouraging.
"We got a very nice invitation from the CDU/CSU to meet for preliminary talks," said Hofreiter. "But when I hear some of the comments from the CSU, I've got my doubts whether such a coalition could last for four full years and not just 100 days."
CSU deputy party leader Alexander Dobrindt had earlier made clear his Bavarian party wants a coalition with the SPD and he belittled a Greens' suggestion during its election campaign to introduce more vegetarian meals in public cafeterias.
"We'd rather talk with the SPD because we don't want to have to listen to the Greens waffling on about 'Veggie Days' and their ideas on telling people how to lead their lives," he said.
A CDU/CSU-Greens government is considered a less likely option partly because the parties have been traditionally further apart on tax, energy, Europe and social issues.
Yet leaders of both the Greens and the conservatives have said they have never been closer to joining forces, thanks in part to Merkel's decision in 2011 to shut down Germany's nuclear power plants by 2022 and her embrace of renewable energy.
The conservatives and the Greens, whose roots are in the left-wing peace and anti-nuclear movement, held perfunctory exploratory talks after the 2005 election but they got nowhere.
Then, Merkel and the SPD ended up in a 'grand coalition'.
The CDU/CSU now desperately need a new junior partner after losing their traditional ally, the liberal Free Democrats, who fell short of the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament and may never recover.
Merkel also needs leverage against the SPD, and the Greens fit the bill.
Apart from the rapprochement on energy issues, the Greens have increasingly appealed to conservative voters with their emphasis on balancing the budget.
The Greens' support grew nationally when they governed in coalition with the CDU in the northern port city of Hamburg from 2008 to 2010 because many conservative voters suddenly saw them as fiscally responsible.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)