There are dozens of smaller parties that represent Germany's small voting groups. Generally, small parties don't make it into the Bundestag. But that could change in this election.
At first glance, it's a bit deceptive: 39 parties have been approved to run in the election on September 22 that will make up the 18th session of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, though five of those parties have since decided not to run.
However, only a handful of these parties traditionally have any hope of sending representatives to take part in the new parliament. This is thanks to an exclusion clause, the so-called 5-percent hurdle. The last party to overcome this barrier was the former East German Left party, which managed to break through in 1998. Fifteen years earlier, the Greens joined the Bundestag in the same way.
The fact that Germany's political landscape is relatively stable is not just because of this exclusion clause. "The established political parties have grouped themselves around the ideological middle, and don't really differ from each other anymore," said Karl-Rudolf Korte, a politics professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
Other countries are much more heterogeneous and polarized, says Korte, adding that while Germany is politically stable this has caused voters to become somewhat bored. "But, as a result, smaller parties are able to profit from this situation by getting more attention," he said.
Recently, it's been possible to observe this effect with two new smaller parties, the left-liberal Pirate Party and the populist center-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The first has described itself as the party of the Internet age, while the latter emerged out of middle-class protests against the euro rescue policies of the Merkel administration.
The Pirates were established in 2006, and since then have already been voted into parliament in four German states. Nationwide, they currently have around 31,000 members. The AfD is a relatively new party, in existence since only February of this year, but it already has about 15,000 members, among them many defectors from the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Both parties are formally represented in all 16 German states, more or less firmly anchored across the country. Until now, the only parties able to claim this success - besides the long-established CDU/CSU, FDP, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Left and the Greens - have been the right-wing National Democratic Party, the communist Marxist–Leninist Party of Germany and the Citizens' Association of Free Voters.
A slim chance
Recent opinion polls put support for the Pirates and the AfD between 2 and 3 percent. Taking into account a statistical margin of error of a few percentage points, this gives both parties a conceivable chance of moving into the Bundestag.
Pollsters point out other reasons why this could be a possibility. The Pirates could benefit from the fact that most voter surveys are done on landlines. But since many young people no longer have such a connection in their homes, instead relying solely on their mobile phones, they could be underrepresented in these surveys.
For the AfD, on the other hand, it could be that many of those surveyed may not wish to risk supporting a party that has yet to firmly establish itself. By the time the election rolls around, however, they may go ahead and make a mark next to a protest party - like the AfD.
The established parties on Germany's political scene will be giving the upstarts some stiff competition. Early on, they kept a watchful eye on the two new parties and began to take countermeasures. After all, the AfD and the Pirates would alter the composition of the usual five-party parliament and make life difficult for the ruling coalitions.
As the Pirates began attracting some positive polling results in the spring and summer of 2012 the established parties, suddenly nervous, began to openly flaunt their own Internet knowledge.
The AfD has been treating the CDU/CSU and the FDP with open contempt, and the established parties have been trying to keep the AfD's main election issue, the euro crisis, out of the campaign entirely, hoping to pull the plug on their protest.
Not just a one-issue party?
Bernd Lucke, the founder and spokesperson for the AfD, tried before the summer break to make it clear that the AfD is not just a one-issue party, contrary to what some people have claimed. Such an image does not go over well with the electorate and the media calling for a full party platform.
At a press conference in Berlin, Lucke presented three AfD committees on energy policy, health and defense. But these programmed statements seemed populist and cobbled together, similar to the AfD's stance on the euro crisis, and the media paid scant attention.
"Only 20 percent of citizens have heard of us so far," admitted Lucke. The AfD hopes to double this figure with some aggressive street campaigning, but their success remains to be seen. Unlike similar parties in neighboring France and the Netherlands which have gained popular support, right-wing populist parties have found it difficult to establish themselves at the federal level in Germany.
In addition, especially in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon world, even conservative media outlets in Germany are generally more moderate and critical in their reporting on fringe parties.
Initial popularity lost
After the initial hype for the Pirate Party, support fell off in the fall of 2012 as the newly-elected party leadership gave off a negative, divided image in public.
"That caused a lot of damage," said Internet columnist Sascha Lobo - the trust of the voters disappeared. Perhaps for this reason it has hardly been noticed that the Pirates have been able to move beyond one-issue party status and establish their own full party platform.
According to Lobo, the recent NSA spying scandal has given the Pirates a second chance to gain the trust of voters outside of their core electorate. The party leaders are hoping that current discussions on data security and civil rights on the Internet will give them the decisive boost and translate into votes, come election day.
Politics professor Korte, however, remains skeptical. "The scandal has actually come too late, because the mainstream media has lost interest in the Pirate Party," he said. Unfortunately, because the NSA scandal would be the ideal topic for the Pirates. "They would be able to describe exactly the technical details of what's been happening - they have an innate expertise for this important Internet-related issue."
Should the Pirates or the AfD make it into the Bundestag, they would each take around 40 seats in parliament. All of a sudden, they wouldn't be such small parties anymore.