NEUMUENSTER, Germany (Reuters) - With some sporting pirate garb and black beards in light-hearted tribute to their name, Germany's Pirates party gathered in a small city hall and in the vast open waters of cyberspace this weekend to chart a course that may yet take them to the national parliament.
The party, which met in the northern city of Neumuenster, aroused a mixture of wry amusement and angry derision when it stormed onto the political scene last year garnering 8.9 percent of vote in Berlin's city assembly. Since then, however, it has staked a claim to third place in the party pecking order, garnering 11 to 13 percent in opinion polls.
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, not one to indulge the frivolous, must take them seriously. Her chances of winning a third term at 2013 federal polls are rising because the Pirates' surge from nowhere makes it less likely that the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens can form a majority.
The Pirates are drawing support from all parties, but particularly from the left. Thanks to their spirited anti-establishment attitude they are also attracting many new voters who in the past stayed away from the polls on election day.
"We were young and we were small, but we have already made history," said 24-year old Marina Weisband, a Pirates leader, in a speech opening a two-day congress where suits were few and far between but bottles of high caffeine soft drinks and bags of sweets littered the tables.
"We believe that people have to be connected because the best ideas stem from a network," she added.
Critics, especially in mainstream parties, portray them as a chaotic assembly of individuals with few policies beyond a vague infatuation with the internet. Talk of extremism and irresponsibility recalls denunciations of the Greens in the 1980s during their breathtaking advance on the Bundestag.
When the Greens entered parliament, they unleashed scorn on rival benches with their potted plants, dungarees and knitting. What effect theatrical props such as pirate hats and plastic cutlasses, with their mockery of the establishment, might have is hard to gauge.
The Pirates followed up their Berlin success by entering a second regional parliament in March in Saarland. They stand to enter two more of the 16 state assemblies in the next two weeks, and membership has more than doubled in a year to around 28,600.
The Pirates are polling at 9 percent in the two regions which hold May state elections, setting them on track to get the 5 percent needed to enter the federal parliament in next year's national election. They do not want to form a coalition with any party and aim to be only an opposition party for now.
The Pirates, who adopted their name on being accused of piracy over a fondness for downloading copyrighted information and material from the internet, have tapped into a rich vein of voter discontent over established parties -- the SPD, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Free Democrats (FDP) -- who have dominated politics in varying coalitions, for six decades.
"I wasn't into politics before. I didn't feel as if I could change anything with the other parties," said party delegate Marius Werner, 22, uploading photos onto Twitter while listening to a debate in the northern city of Neumuenster, where some 1,700 delegates gathered.
"But I went to a meeting of the Pirates and had a lot of fun and noticed this was the kind of politics people could really feel part of. This is democracy from the ground up," said the young Pirate sporting black, waist-long dreadlocks.
Detractors say this outsider status could also make them appeal to those who might otherwise vote for radical parties. Controversy erupted recently when two members were outed as formerly belonging to the far-right NPD.
Much is at stake. If the Pirates' success endures, it could fundamentally change the political landscape, fragmenting it and making it more problematic for the established parties to form majorities. They could also change the way parties do politics.
But if the Pirates implode, it could give the centre-left opposition a boost, and threaten Merkel's re-election, as a key conservative aid acknowledged to Reuters last week.
The Pirates Party emerged in Sweden six years ago to campaign for free downloads for personal use and better privacy in the Internet era. When the German chapter was founded months later, it was first seen as a splinter group for computer nerds.
They are still led by their technology-savvy membership. But they have also broadened their agenda, in particular to creating a more transparent and democratic political system where voters get more opportunities to decide on the issues of the day -- using the internet.
The Pirates have developed an elaborate structure and communications network to get the party base more involved. "Squads" work on particular topics such as social policy, and local "crews" ensure that all voices are heard.
They determine policy using "liquid feedback", an online tool that enables each party member to make proposals, to comment and vote on them and communicate via mailing lists.
"I mostly participate online, via mailing lists, wiki, squad working groups over internet teleconferences," said a 40-year old pirate named Mark sporting a black bandana, beard and earrings. "I'm on 25 Pirates email lists so you get a lot of emails to digest. I spend 10 to 20 hours doing work online."
The atmosphere at the congress was surprisingly low-key and the tone quiet. Hundreds of Pirates like Mark were huddled over their computers, relaying with online messaging and live blogs details about the debate taking place on stage and digging up information on the internet about proposals being floated.
Where brief storms occurred, they tended not to be on the floor or on the podium, but out in cyberspace, in floods of tweets over some sensitive issue such as the former NPD members.
The message was clear. Other parties may make important decisions in closed-doors meetings of leaders. The Pirates make their decisions openly, with masses of grassroot members chiming in on the net.
Some political analysts say the Pirates attract mostly the protest vote, but others says there is more to it than that.
"The Pirates share a strong stance that is not expressed through concrete demands but in their values emphasizing political transparency and participation," said Oskar Niedermayer, political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
YOUNG AND HIP
As a result of their origins in the Internet scene, the Pirates are overwhelmingly male, politically inexperienced and young, but the average age has risen to 37 from around 30.
Pollsters say the Pirates have usurped the Greens as the country's young and hip alternative to the musty mainstream.
"I don't feel well represented by older people from parties that have become well-established," said Bianca Staubitz, 27, a medical student. "The Greens are now also established, they have adapted to the system since they were in government."
"I'm not a technical freak, but you can't ignore the new media. We can make parliament more modern, bring fresh wind, and show what the younger generation thinks."
The fact the Pirates attempt to eschew hierarchy means young people's vote may count more than in another party dominated by older members who have worked their way up the career ladder.
The Pirates on Saturday voted against lengthening the time a leader can hold onto the position to ensure no one becomes too prominent and the status quo is not reinforced.
Whereas established parties plaster towns with traditional posters showing politicians in statesman-like poses, the Pirates come up with cheeky and neon-colored posters.
"We are romantics; for caring agriculture instead of industrial mass production," reads the slogan plastered on an image of sheep mating on a lime green background.
SUPPORT FOR MERKEL
The sudden emergence of the Pirates and surge in support for them is unrivalled in post-war history, say pollsters.
Merkel's struggling FDP junior coalition allies spent much of their party conference last weekend attacking the Pirates for being at best merely "a party with internet connection" and no policies, and at worst, akin to Somali Pirates robbing other people of their property.
The FDP, a small party but so often the third-placed kingmaker, is reeling from a string of election defeats and more lost support could spell doom for them.
But the Pirates present a greater threat to the centre-left SPD and the Greens given their campaign for a basic income and for greater democratic participation.
The Pirates are cautious about whether their current streak of success is sustainable until the next election.
A glance at Sweden's Pirate Party shows it could be ephemeral. In their hey-day, the party won 7 percent of the vote in the European parliament's 2009 election. But in the 2010 national elections it got just 0.65 percent.
Germany's Pirates are coming increasingly under fire. Many politicians attack them for not having answers for key problems outside their core competences such as the euro zone crisis.
"I cannot answer that, the party does not yet have an opinion on it," is a typical answer heard from Pirate leaders. Others promise to learn how to do politics as they go along.
The party has also been accused of misogyny due to its lack of women members, and sheltering people with far-right views.
One party member who had recently talked on a video blog about "world jewelry" stood for party leader on Saturday, prompting streams of Pirates to leave the room in protest.
The Pirates may already be bringing about some positive change in the German political system, forcing other parties to get up to speed with internet policy and become more transparent.
"In some ways they can spur on other parties," Merkel said recently. "They are an interesting phenomenon, and we don't know yet how it will develop."
(Additional reporting by Hans-Edzard Busemann and Patrick Lannin; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)