VIENNA Austria's Green party is counting on its squeaky-clean image to propel it into the next government after a run of successes in provincial elections that few had predicted, its leader told Reuters on Tuesday.
The Greens hit home this year with an anti-corruption campaign that directly targeted the establishment parties and their corporate interest networks, a system that has dominated in Austria since World War Two.
The party is now in coalition governments in five of Austria's nine provinces, the strongest position in its 27-year history, helped by financial and political scandals afflicting its rivals.
"I could have never dreamed of all of this a year ago," Eva Glawischnig said in an interview in her office overlooking the parliament.
With 15 percent in the latest opinion polls, the Greens are still behind the far-right Freedom Party as well as the Social Democrat (SPO) and conservative People's Party (OVP) whose many coalition governments are Austria's default position.
But if the SPO and OVP fail to gather a majority of votes between them in parliamentary elections on September 29 - they now score 27 and 25 percent respectively - then all bets are off.
"For us it's about achieving a size where we can form a new ruling majority with somebody," said Glawischnig, 44, who has run the party since 2009. The Greens took 10 percent in 2008.
"On a national level it's more difficult, but I think it would be important for Austria to have something different."
Austria's Greens would be only the third European Green party to be part of a national government after Finland and Denmark.
Despite their growing popularity, the Greens will have their work cut out, political analyst Peter Filzmaier said.
He sees a right-wing coalition between the OVP, Freedom Party (FPO) and the new party of Austro-Canadian billionaire industrialist Frank Stronach as a more likely scenario if the SPO and OVP fail to secure a majority between them.
"It's certain that the Greens will be successful in the election, but they only have a small chance of joining a government," Filzmaier said.
Austria has been governed by a so-called grand coalition of SPO and OVP since 1983, except for two terms of government by a right-wing grouping that included the party of late extreme right leader Joerg Haider from 2000 until 2007.
The cosy consensus enabled a social contract to thrive between politicians, industry and workers that protected jobs and avoided confrontation, but also bred bribery and a business culture built on personal relationships and favours.
Fighting corruption has become the Greens' main public focus, especially as nuclear-free, organic-friendly Austria has come a long way in embracing environmental values - although its record on some issues such as carbon emissions is poor.
Glawischnig says there is still much to fight for on the environment, social justice, education and women's rights.
As the only female party leader in a male-dominated parliament, Glawischnig - a trained lawyer who came to politics after working for the environmental group Global 2000, and has two young sons - has had to bear much scrutiny.
A cut-off top she wore at her 2005 wedding to TV sports presenter Volker Piesczek put her on the front page of Austria's best-selling tabloid, and her appearance - more elegant professional than grungy tree-hugger - attracts regular comment.
Glawischnig says she is no longer upset by the "everyday sexism" of parliamentary life, and has learned to tackle feminist issues with humour - as in a mock-up poster the Greens produced of the other party leaders portrayed as women.
"I believe that many women are fed up with macho parties," she said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)