BERLIN (Reuters) - The astonishing rise of the Greens has given Germany's pro-environment party a new and unexpected problem -- do the Greens have anyone who could lead the country?
The party that was founded three decades ago as an anti-nuclear and anti-war party will be leading the government in one of Germany's 16 states for the first time after winning the election in Baden-Wuerttemberg state last month.
That stunning triumph and the Greens' record-breaking run in opinion polls have stirred talk that the party will have to field a chancellor candidate for the 2013 election -- and indeed a "Kanzlerkandidat" with a chance to win.
The party would name the chancellor if it emerged from the 2013 election as the largest party in the winning alliance and led a national coalition for the first time.
This would be a dramatic change from the party's original structure and some Greens are uncomfortable with the idea.
The Greens began as an anti-party with strict rotation principles and rules barring anyone from holding multiple offices -- designed to prevent a concentration of power like that in established parties.
Until now, the Greens have appeared content to be junior coalition partners, allied mostly with the Social Democrats (SPD), and never dreamed of picking a candidate for the top job.
Their historic victory in Baden-Wuerttemberg, where they won 24.2 percent of the votes and beat the SPD (23.2 percent) for the first time, has changed all that.
They now have to think seriously about a chancellor candidate of their own -- and seem ill at ease with the notion of concentrating so much power in one person's hands.
"Most people in Germany can't imagine a Greens chancellor," said Manfred Guellner, director of the Forsa polling institute. "But the Greens have been doing so well in polls for so long now that the idea probably wouldn't shock anyone anymore."
The Greens have no obvious candidate and have said they will wait until next year before even considering the issue.
For a traditionally small party like the Greens, who have never won more than 10.7 percent of the vote in a national election, picking a chancellor candidate runs the risk of appearing arrogant and could be punished by the voters.
The Free Democrats (FDP), another small party, were widely ridiculed in 2002 when for the first time they named a chancellor candidate -- Guido Westerwelle. They won a disappointing 7.4 percent and dropped the idea after that.
BUT WILL IT LAST?
The nuclear disaster in Japan has pushed the Greens up to 28 percent in the latest Forsa poll, ahead of the center-left SPD (23 percent) they shared power with from 1998 to 2005.
Surveys in Germany -- where fear of nuclear accidents has long been much higher than elsewhere -- show a Greens-SPD coalition 17 points ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition.
"The Greens are the party of choice for protest voters," said Guellner. "They're the original anti-nuclear party and that's obviously helping now. They're doing so well because the other parties are making so many mistakes.
"But who knows if that will last?" Guellner added.
The Greens began as a niche party in 1980 and hovered just above the five percent threshold in most federal and state elections. But in the last two years they have emerged as a major political force for a number of reasons:
- The Greens have benefited from being in opposition at the federal level since 2005, longer than most of the major parties. Germans like to complain about those who rule them and that has given the opposition Greens a boost, analysts say.
- The Greens now have a track record of fiscal prudence. Their 2008-10 coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats in Hamburg broadened their appeal among conservative voters who had been put off by the Greens' "muesli and woolly sweater" origins.
- The Greens are seen as the party most likely to carry out pledges to abandon nuclear power and expand the use of renewable energy -- which already produces 17 percent of Germany's electricity thanks to Greens policies.
"The surge in support for the Greens right now is due in large part to the public's reaction in Germany to the Japanese nuclear accident (at Fukushima)," said Dieter Fuchs, political scientist at Stuttgart University.
"The big question is: will that last? I have my doubts that they will stay as strong as they are now for the longer term," he said. The Greens may fall behind the SPD, but their support will probably not slip under 15 percent, he added.
So who could the Greens pick to run against Merkel in 2013?
They have four leaders -- two party leaders and two parliamentary floor leaders. Men and women share all the top jobs, though the Greens have dropped the rotation principle that required their leaders to step down at regular intervals.
None of the four has more than negligible public support, according to an Emnid poll for Sunday's Bild am Sonntag weekly.
Juergen Trittin and Renate Kuenast, parliamentary floor leaders, were backed by only 17 and 14 percent respectively, while party leaders Cem Oezdemir (13 percent) and Claudia Roth (8 percent) trailed further behind.
The poll found a retired Greens leader, ex-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, was the party's best hope for chancellor with 17 percent backing although the 63-year-old has left politics.
"I feel honored but that's about it," Fischer told Bild am Sonntag when asked if he would be the chancellor candidate.
Trittin, who was Environment Minister from 1998 to 2005, dismissed a poll in Stern magazine on Wednesday that showed Fischer would win 31 percent against Merkel (48 percent) and that she would beat him and Kuenast more easily.
"I don't think we need a chancellor candidate right now," Trittin told Die Zeit newspaper. "We'll see at the end of the year if this lasts. We're interested in success but we're not going to get intoxicated by it."
Roth was similarly evasive in a radio interview. "It's not an issue for us right now," she said. "We're busy working on relevant issues and not interested in a 'virtual debate' about candidates." (Editing by Tim Pearce)