BERLIN (Reuters) - Among the posters plastered around Berlin ahead of a regional vote on Sunday, the bright colors, unconventional photography and thought-provoking slogans of the Pirate Party stand well out from the pack.
"We have the questions, you have the answers," reads one, and "The Internet in the hands of the users" another, reflecting the party's grass-roots, populist agenda.
Dismissed by many as too kooky to take seriously, the Pirates for the first time have a chance of winning a seat in a state parliament -- the party is polling ahead of the Free Democrats (FDP), the junior coalition partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal coalition, at around the 5 percent threshold for entering the assembly.
First-time voter Ruben Doehrer, 18, is among those who say they will flock to the Pirate Party on September 18.
"The old ideologies are not as gripping or relevant anymore," said political science student Doehrer, perusing campaign leaflets on Kollwitzplatz in the trendy east Berlin district of Prenzlauerberg.
"It's exciting to see a new party founded and develop so quickly," said the Berlin native, clad in jean shorts and a striped shirt. "Their campaign is hilarious, and brave."
The Pirate Party first emerged in Sweden just five years ago to campaign for reform of copyright and better privacy in the Internet age.
When the German branch was founded months later, it was seen by some as a group for computer nerds, but by others, many of them young, as a party focused on what were for them core issues around Internet use.
Membership swelled to 12,000 nationwide with an average age of 29, and the party won dozens of seats in local councils.
The Pirates have since broadened their agenda to include issues such as establishing a minimum wage, offering a new alternative to musty mainstream politics, a slot once held by the Greens, who are now seen as part of the establishment.
Berlin, a hub for information technology startups with a young and creative population, is a Pirates stronghold and the place where the party faithful are placing their biggest bets -- Pirates from all around Europe have piled into the city to help in the campaign.
"The Pirates are in tune with the Berlin vibe with their relaxed campaign," said Holger Liljeberg of the Info polling institute. "They focus a lot on liberalism, freedom and self-determination."
"And you find technology fiends more often in big cities than in the countryside, and above all in Berlin," he added.
The Pirates are running their campaign on a lean 50,000-euro budget. Campaigning on Kollwitzplatz, a party candidate has brought his own leaflets in a battered shopping trolley while nearby, large teams from mainstream parties stand in front of snazzy vans handing out balloons and gifts to passers-by.
PLUNDERING THE FDP
The Pirates are still led by their technology-savvy core membership. At party headquarters in Berlin, a dozen men in their 20s and 30s are huddled over laptops, developing the party's online campaign.
"We have still not reached our original goal of freedom rights on the Net and probably won't as long as the established parties don't take this seriously," says Philipp Magalski, 37, one of the Pirate's top candidates.
Forsa pollster Manfred Guellner says this goal is more about technology than ideology, which will stop them from becoming a serious political movement and doom them to a short life -- like their Swedish sister, whose political significance has dwindled after some early successes.
"It will be a flash in the pan, like with the Swedes. The Internet is important, but only one aspect of people's lives."
The party is trying to widen its appeal, however. It is campaigning for the state to be less involved in people's lives in all ways, not just on the Internet; to extend voting rights to minors; and to introduce a "liquid democracy" -- where many policies are decided by direct referendum.
At the party level, the Pirates already practise liquid democracy online, which is especially appealing to young voters who have little say in other traditionally hierarchical parties.
Pollster Liljeberg says they could well win over some voters disillusioned with the FDP's leadership.
"They are tackling super-liberal topics, while the FDP has actually neglected its core liberalism," he said.
The FDP is polling at 3 percent in Berlin. The center-left Social Democratic Party is leading the pack thanks to the popularity of the current mayor, with the Greens and conservatives tied for second place.
Julia Schramm, who long campaigned for the FDP's youth group, says she switched to the Pirates because they support liberal issues without neglecting the social ones.
"The FDP is meant to be about decentralization, liberalism, freedom -- but it's not, and that has become ever more apparent since they came into power after many years in opposition," said the 25-year old, sporting red tights and a short black jumpsuit and gesticulating indignantly.
"The Pirates are liberal, but they are also social, they have vision and courage," said Schramm, a political science student who is writing a book about life on the Internet.
JUST A PROTEST VOTE?
No matter what their appeal in Berlin, however, the Pirates are self-proclaimed political amateurs who will have an uphill struggle winning over the national mainstream.
Forsa's Guellner says the Pirates still have no positions on
foreign affairs and the economy, for example, and remain for most people a protest vote.
"There is no clear homogenous movement among the Pirates, no clear goal," he said.
"They are polling well in Berlin because there has always been a greater number of people here going for the non-established parties to express their discontent."
Some of their provocative but not very practical policies, such as allowing people of all ages to vote in certain circumstances, are too radical for mainstream consumption, while their name can prompt laughter rather than serious consideration.
But the Pirates point to the success of the Greens, who also started out as an single-issue environmental party in the 1980s and were portrayed as tree-hugging hippies, only to eventually become a partner in the federal government.
"The Greens were also ridiculed for their name at the beginning," said Magalski, sporting a mop of blond hair, goatee, floral blue shirt and tartan shorts. "We now have to show we are not just a comedy party."
"If we get into the Berlin parliament, it will generate a snowball effect, with people realizing we are a force to be reckoned with."
(Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)