Just a year ago, one in three Germans could envision voting for the Pirate Party. But in recent polls, support has since plunged. Still, top candidate Melanie Kalkowski believes she can win a seat in parliament.
At night, Melanie Kalkowski occasionally experiences a ringing in her ears. The 35-year-old is used to the squeaky noises made when supporters tie the party's characteristic orange balloons while on the campaign trail.
Today Kalkowski is in the city of Recklinghausen in northwest Germany.She has spent all morning distributing brochures and postcards in an effort get in touch with pedestrians. Some stop to have a chat with her, while others simply walk away. "I enjoy reaching out to people," she told DW.
Kalkowski is the Pirate Party's top candidate in Germany's upcoming national elections. She could be the first of her party to enter the German Bundestag, or lower house - but only if the Pirates overcome the five percent threshold needed to win seats in the Bundestag,
An accountant among 'Pirates'
Some people might imagine a typical Pirate Party adherent as a technology freak, staring at a computer screen all day and socializing exclusively via the Internet. But Melanie Kalkowski doesn't fit that picture. She's a tax accountant, is married and has two children. Occasionally she tweets: "I am not an Internet freak." The young politician is eloquent in her interviews. Some people, she says, are amazed to see her wearing business pants.
"Many people can't believe that someone with my resume and professional background joined the Pirate Party," she said. "But this diversity is precisely what makes us stand out. Kalkowski says she joined the Pirates because of their new and different view of politics.
"We think outside the box. We're neither a right-wing nor a left-wing party, we're progressive."
There are currently some 70 Pirate parties worldwide. Thus far, none has been as successful as the German one. In Germany's state parliaments, Pirates have managed to win a total of 45 seats.
The party's core issues revolve around Internet policy. Its members support data protection, freedom of the Internet, stand for greater transparency in public administration and government and demand more possibilities for civic activism - especially via the Internet. However, they also have non-Internet demands, such as a basic income guarantees or free bus and tram rides. Such policy platforms would normally be attributed to left-wing parties.
With the party's core issues revolving around Internet, the web has become an intricate part of how the Pirates do politics. Conferences and other meetings are streamed live on the Internet and even differences of opinion are usually expressed via Facebook or Twitter.
The Pirate party's rise in the past couple of years caught many other parties by surprise. Over the course of one year, members nearly tripled to around 34,000. That makes it the largest party not represented in the Bundestag and the seventh-largest party overall.
'All they care about is their ego'
About a year ago, one in three Germans considered voting for them. "It was really hyped," Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at the Freie Universität Berlin, told DW. "There was so much positive media coverage for the Pirates because of their young and fresh appearance. There was so much projected into them."
Since then the party has seen support drop from 13 percent just twelve months ago to 3 percent today. Niedermayer has his own explanation for the party's current crisis.
"The Pirates have barely taken part in the political discourse, and only stand out for personnel disputes and internal conflicts," he said.
The researcher adds that while there are "disputes in other parties," things are different with the Pirates.
"For the sake of transparency, Pirates hold these quarrels in public, thus giving the impression that all they care about is their own ego."
Grassroots democracy - with weeds
The Pirates have also made headlines for recent resignations at top levels. Two members of the party's organizational board resigned last fall. Additionally, Johannes Ponader, the Pirates' chief policy maker, stated he would step down at the party conference on the weekend of 11 May, 2013 to better "ease conflicts on the board" and take responsibility for the shrinking popularity. Since the Pirates oppose any kind of hierarchical structure, party organizers only have administrative responsibilities.
But the party has also struggled to present a unique position in important policy areas such as the economy, foreign affairs and security. Party conferences, meetings and other events often feel chaotic to non-members.
Kalkowski, however, considers this to be one of her party's strong points. "Grassroots democracy is strenuous. It demands time and strength, but it's worth it," she said.
Despite poor approval ratings, the 35-year-old still believes she has a chance to win a seat in Germany's parliament. And even if the Pirates don't make it into the Bundestag this year, they won't disappear from the political landscape, Kalkowski believes.
"We are more than just a party," she said. "We're a movement. We'll be around forever."
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