As Germany's major-league parties fine tune their arguments ahead of elections, the country's numerous fringe groups are trying to adapt to the blow the possibility of an early ballot has dealt to their chances.
Will Germans vote big or small come polling day?
Collectively, the names of Germany's marginal parties sound like the stuff of young Alice's Wonderland. From the Fun Party to the Anarchic German Pogo Party, from the Grey Panthers to the Car Drivers' Party, come the federal elections, voting outside of the box is easily done. But for all the imagination of the names and the policies they represent, these parties take their plights very seriously.
Voting regulations in Germany are such that smaller parties have little on their side but an inherent faith in themselves and whatever support they are able to drum up among the electorate. Even for the bigger of the small fish, the chance of ever having a face in parliament is a distant dream.
They are held at arm's length by a clause that stipulates that only those parties which manage to garner at least five percent of the vote or three constituency seats may be represented in parliament. The idea behind the clause, which was introduced in 1953, was to keep splinter parties out and create an environment in which larger parties could obtain the majorities needed to govern.
In order for smaller parties to be allowed to run in a federal ballot at all, they first have to prove they are serious contenders, which they do by collecting signatures.
Depending on the size of the state in which they plan to run candidates, they are expected to gather between 800 and 2,000 names to back their electoral efforts. And if they're seeking ballot box representation all over the country, they need a total of 28,000 signatures.
Could the Law and Order party save Germany?
It's a tall order for groups that generally rely upon the goodwill of their members to do the collecting. Markus Wagner, leader of the right-wing populist Law and Order Party, or Offensive D, says the short run-up to September's elections will make their job particularly difficult.
"It is certainly our intention to run in the federal elections, but it depends on signature numbers. We only have a twelfth of the time to collect them, which makes it very difficult for smaller parties," Wagner said.
Although some minor parties, such as the Christian PBC, set the bar high with an outspoken aim to make it into the Bundestag, gaining enough momentum to jump the five percent hurdle is not what motivates every party to run in the federal elections.
"Our aim is quite different. We are hoping to get 0.5 percent of the vote in order to recover some of our election campaign costs so we have the financial basis to run as a conservative-liberal party in the 2009 elections," Wagner said.
Reaching this modest, more realistic target is not without implications for small parties, which receive 0.70 euros ($0.84) for each vote they win. The money, which is paid out in installments between one federal election and another, can make a huge difference to poor parties.
Hildegard Stöber of the PBC, who believes that what Germany really needs is a Christian government, says a little more money would go a long way.
The PBC want to see Germany run by the rules of the holy book
"We need people to run our election campaign, we need posters. Many small parties fail simply because they don't have enough money. Our members are volunteers who have to fit the work in around their paid jobs. If we had more money, we could pay people to do more," she said.
Spreading the political gospel
Although it is highly unlikely that Germany will ever embrace the idea of a theocracy, Stöber's complaint is echoed through the ranks of many minor parties across the country.
Jörg Chemnitz of the Violets Party, which campaigns on an environmental, humanistic and spiritual platform, would be equally grateful for a bit of loose change, but he's not banking on it coming his way.
"We'd love to recover some of our costs, but we are neither dreamers nor illusionists, and we know it won't happen. What we are getting from the excitement of this early ballot is much more attention, our ideas are being spread," he said.
Protecting nature is just one of the Violets' priorities
And both he and Stöber claim that this time round, they have noticed a heightened interest -- particularly among younger members of the electorate -- in what marginal parties have to offer over the hollow promises of the big contenders.
"I see that people who once belonged to more established parties are now drifting towards us. They are beginning to notice that there is not much difference in the policies of the Conservatives and Liberals versus those of the Social Democrats and the Greens," Chemnitz said.
But if research by the Infratest election research institute is anything to go on, there is a body of evidence to suggest that when push comes to shove, voters are not prepared to go that extra mile and put their trust in an unknown quantity. It's a case of sticking to one of the few devils they already know so well.