Less than a month before likely federal elections in Germany, there is a plethora of Web sites poking fun at the various candidates. Internet surfers can watch a photomontage of the Christian Democrats' Angela Merkel breakdancing or a boxing match between Merkel and sitting Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
While there is a lot of satire and silliness surrounding the parties and their candidates out there on the Web, the targets of all the online barbs are taking cyberspace very seriously these days. The Internet is playing big during this campaign season.
Strategists at the Social Democrats' campaign headquarters are helping Chancellor Schröder defend his title. Like the opposition, the SPD has an entire department dedicated to looking after its Web presence -- around the clock. The Internet could play a decisive role, according to Sebastian Reichel of the SPD's campaign team, especially during such a short election campaign.
"Any party which doesn't conduct its campaigning on the Internet or sees it as just a sideline is missing a great opportunity not only to mobilize voters, but also to educate and bring them over to your side," he said.
Besides explaining their party's platform and presenting candidates, the Social Democrats' site tells supporters how they can get involved, listen to podcasts, and donate to the party.
The conservative opposition Christian Democrats are no less savvy when it comes to going after the digital generation. They have their own podcast -- called iKauder, after General Secretary Volker Kauder -- news ticker and links to sites that heap vitriol on the sitting government.
No other medium allows the campaigners to react as quickly to a political opponent's slip-up and the financial costs are much lower than for more traditional forms of campaign advertising.
The hottest trend in this year's election is the Weblog, or blog, a form of online diary in which politicians share their thoughts with voters.
Social Democratic candidate Niels Annen from Hamburg has publicized his day-to-day schedule for the last three weeks on his Web site. Aside from his party's platforms, readers can learn more -- if not all -- about Niels Annen himself.
"I wouldn't include certain things about my private life, things I don't believe belong in the public realm," he said. "But it's more about personal impressions, or perhaps things that I've felt at various times. I do include them."
Every day Annen says he receives around a dozen responses to his blog. Sometimes the remarks are offensive, but Annen says he is pleased with most of the comments and writes personal replies.
"Some who wrote once said: 'You're too left-leaning for me, but keep it up. It's obvious you write things yourself, as opposed to many of your colleagues.' That's encouraging and is why I keep going."
Surfing the Internet is a matter of course for Germany's young people. Even if many aren't aware of the campaigning taking place online, media experts say Internet ads are no longer just a campaign gimmick.
Soon, making appearances in tabloid-style programs on television, which Chancellor Schröder once called his most important campaign aid, won't be enough.
"At the moment, election campaigns are changing. Traditional media, like TV, radio, and print still play a big role," said Jo Groebel, director of the European Institute for the Media. "That also has to do with the fact that most leading politicians are of a certain age and not necessarily used to employing online media in such a big way."
But that is changing. One of the few prominent politicians who -- in spite of his advanced years -- has recognized the signs of the times is the Liberals' Hermann Otto Solms, who is a candidate for the Bundestag. A few days ago he started writing his own blog. It's taking some getting used to, but Solms is not about to give it up."Through the Internet we have the opportunity to contact thousands of people simultaneously," he said. "There's no better medium available. And via the Internet I meet ordinary people on a much broader scale. That's why it's pushing aside traditional campaign appearances to such an extent."