By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, July 29 (Reuters) - Germany's Greens are open to new coalition deals and willing even to work with their old enemy, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, after September elections, party leader Cem Oezdemir said in an interview.
Many conservatives reviled the Greens as dangerous militants when they first entered parliament in the 1980s wearing dungarees and flourishing potted plants. The Greens, for their part, saw the conservatives as handmaidens of an imperialistic U.S. nuclear arms buildup. There was little common ground.
Times have changed. After a first taste of government in coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) from 1998 to 2005, the Greens are eager to regain a foothold in power on Sept 27.
"The Greens were once thought of as 'tree huggers'," said Cem Oezdemir, co-chair of the party that grew out of the peace and anti-nuclear movements from the late 1960s. "Now I get a feeling other parties and industry are turning into 'Green huggers'."
The Greens, the world's most successful environmentalist party, have risen to record highs around 13 percent in opinion polls ahead of the election. That is five points above the 8.1 percent won in 2005 after seven years in power with the SPD.
But with no chance of winning another majority with the slumping SPD alone, the Greens have opened themselves to new three-way coalitions and have even been unabashedly flirting with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- long their arch nemesis.
Oezdemir will know that Merkel is also looking for a way to extricate herself from an uneasy grand coalition government with the SPD.
"We've had a number of successful CDU-Greens coalitions at the municipal level and even at the state level in Hamburg it's been working out well," said Oezdemir, 43, agreeing the once heated animosity between the Greens and CDU had dissipated.
"It's remarkable how reliably and static-free the CDU and Greens have been working together in Hamburg," he said.
But Oezdemir said at the national level the CDU and the Greens were still at opposite ends of the spectrum on some key issues: the Greens want nuclear power plants shut by 2020 and want the European Union to move forward on Turkey's membership.
"Because of all that, I'm still sceptical if it would work with the conservatives at the national level," he said. "But it is going to be difficult and complicated to form any coalition in a five-party system where the two main parties are so weak."
The CDU and Greens are surprisingly close on many other issues, especially fiscal policy. There are also a number of CDU leaders who enthusiastically back Greens renewable energy ideas.
"You cannot go into battle and say 'we're not going to do anything with anyone'," he said. "That's why our election aim is to make the Greens as strong as possible and see what happens."
"We want to get into power again. We want to become the third strongest party because that will open up options to influence the course of events after the election and ultimately allow us to help shape policies."
The party is still fourth in opinion polls, just behind the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). The Greens were humbled in the 2005 vote, falling out of government and to fifth place behind Merkel's CDU, the SPD, the FDP and the Left party.
Speaking to Reuters at Greens party headquarters under a roof covered with solar panels, Oezdemir said he believed the Greens were riding high in opinion polls because the world had entered a new era due in part to fears about climate change.
"The 21st century is becoming a 'green age' because there's no alternative," he said.
"I'd like to think it's because we've got great policies but it's not. It's because anyone making an objective analysis realises we have to have a 'green age' to save the planet. That's understood now by industry and even the U.S. president."
Oezdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, became the first person from an ethnic minority elected to run a German party.
He has presided over a rise in support for the Greens since he was elected in 2008, due in part to the weakness of the SPD, and general voter frustration with Merkel's grand coalition.
He said business was now discovering the enormous potential for profit in renewable energy that his party long championed and said that has enticed other parties to become more green.
"The same business leaders that used to laugh at the Greens are now taking what we've been saying very seriously," he said.
One change would be to introduce a speed limit on motorways: it could instantly cut greenhouse gas emissions by nine percent.
"There will be an autobahn speed limit as soon as the Greens are in power," said Oezdemir. "We simply can't afford it any longer to ignore any chance to reduce CO2 emissions." For a Q&A on the Greens, click on [nLR285382]
(Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh; editing by Ralph Boulton)
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