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Germany's Greens may struggle to cash in on pre-election diesel scandal

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s Greens may struggle to capitalize on dissatisfaction among voters with this week’s agreement by carmakers to reduce diesel emissions, a leading pollster said.

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Just seven weeks before a national election, the party is languishing at around 8 percent in polls after enjoying double-digit ratings for most of 2016.

It hopes its criticism of the government’s response to the diesel emissions scandal and pledge to stop the approval of new vehicles with combustion engines from 2030 will help.

But Manfred Guellner, managing director of polling institute Forsa, warned against too much optimism. “It won’t bring the Greens new voters ... Most people know that carmakers make claims that don’t match the reality.”

German politicians and car bosses decided on Wednesday to overhaul engine software on 5.3 million diesel cars to cut pollution after the diesel crisis was splashed across the front pages for much of the last week.

But the step has been widely criticized by environmental groups, politicians and the media for not going far enough.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel was once hailed as the “climate chancellor” for her green energy push, she has more recently earned the epithet “car chancellor”. Her Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partner is meanwhile seen as more interested in pleasing the unions than environmentalists.

With Merkel’s conservatives and the SPD often accused of being too cozy with the car industry, the Greens look like an obvious home for angry voters.

Greens co-leader Cem Ozdemir has said his party has the “best offer” for “whoever wants Germany to remain an automotive production site -- and, under the circumstances, that is only possible with low-emission and then emission-free cars”.

Polls suggest there is plenty of pro-environment sentiment for the Greens to tap into. This week, an Emnid survey found climate change was currently the biggest worry for Germans and a poll in Die Welt newspaper showed 73 percent thought politicians were too lenient with the automobile industry on air pollution.

But Guellner said respect among Germans for the car industry given its importance for the economy was another reason why the party might struggle to improve its polling. The sector is Germany’s biggest exporter and provides about 800,000 jobs.

A Forsa survey conducted last week showed only 9 percent of Germans thought diesel was an important issue ahead of the Sept. 24 vote from which Merkel is expected to emerge as the winner but need a coalition partner. That could be the Greens, who were kingmakers for the SPD from 1998 to 2005.

Political scientist Gero Neugebauer said the Greens were sending a confused message, reflecting internal divisions.

Winfried Kretschmann, Greens premier of the region where Daimler is based, cooperates with the auto industry while others are taking a more radical approach, he said.

Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Madeline Chambers and Catherine Evans