THE Greens party took a major step toward cementing their position as the third force of German politics when they agreed Sunday to form a coalition with the left-oriented Social Democrats (SPD) to govern North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest of Germany's 16 states.
''We started out against the system. Now we are part of the system,'' says Cem zdemir, a Greens leader and the only ethnic Turk member of Parliament.
Leaders from both parties say the North Rhine-Westphalia coalition can serve as a model for a federal government.
''A coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens gives a clear signal for the country ... that can help overcome the standstill at the end of the Kohl era,'' SPD leader Rudolf Scharping told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has led Germany for almost 13 years.
If the scenario painted by Mr. Scharping pans out, it could shift German politics leftward for years, possibly a generation.
This comes at a time when Germany, because of its economic might, will heavily influence the future shape of Europe.
It remains unclear how a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens in Bonn would approach European Union integration or NATO expansion into Central Europe, two causes Germany's current government has championed. Chancellor Kohl and others in his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have asserted that a so-called Red-Green coalition - comprising the incumbent government's adversaries - would upset Germany's usually stable politics and economy.
Some business leaders also appear apprehensive about the Greens, warning they would tax and spend Germany into oblivion.
Such assessments reflect not only concern over the Greens' ascendancy, but also worry over the demise of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is the junior member of Kohl's ruling coalition.
For most of the postwar era, the Free Democrats, who favor business deregulation, acted as political kingmakers. The party has helped both the SPD and the CDU form stable governments. But recent electoral setbacks in state elections have prompted many to wonder whether the FDP has a future.
If the FDP fades from the federal political scene, Kohl's Christian Democrats would be hard-pressed to form a governing majority. Some political analysts say the CDU could possibly win an outright majority in 1998, in the next scheduled elections. But others suggest it would take the Christian Democrats years to win back enough centrist voters to be able to return to government.
The Greens, who are allied with the human rights-oriented Bundnis '90 party, insist they have come a long way since they first appeared in the early 1980s, when they were largely seen as a ragged band of environmental and antinuclear activists.
''We have learned that we need experts and continuous policies, and that we need good leaders,'' Mr. zdemir says. ''People don't read programs, they look at the people standing for those programs.''
The turning point for the Greens, zdemir adds, was the four years spent in the political wilderness after the Greens failed to win parliamentary seats during the 1990 elections. During that period, the party decided that it must repackage its platform and move into the mainstream - though Green politicians still don't wear ties to work.
Over the past year, voters have shown more confidence in the restyled Greens. In last October's federal election they returned to Parliament, capturing 7 percent of the vote. But the North Rhine-Westphalia coalition marks the first time the Greens are taking on the responsibility of governing on such a large scale.
''We must use this [North Rhine-Westphalia win] to get ready,'' zdemir says of governing on a national scale. ''We are not ready everywhere, especially in the area of foreign policy.''
The party remains committed to its environmental roots. It wants to abolish nuclear power and hike gasoline taxes. Critics and political competitors say that power will expose the Greens' policies as unfeasible and even damaging to the economy.
''It's tres chic to favor the Greens, but they have never been in a situation where they have to prove themselves,'' says Ulrich Irmer, a Free Democrat leader.
''If you look at their platform, it's a disaster,'' Mr. Irmer says.
The Greens realized they had to grow more sophisticated to gain power. But they still don't wear ties to work.