By Sarah Marsh and Hans-Edzard Busemann
BOCHUM, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's fast-sinking Pirates Party struggled to overcome infighting at a congress that ended on Sunday and chart a course for next year's federal elections that may see it cast into political oblivion as swiftly as it arrived.
Support for the Pirates, who surprisingly won seats in four states over the past year, has shrunk to around a quarter of its peak. Their demise could help the centre left recover enough votes to oust conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The party surged to 13 percent support in April but is now under 5 percent, the threshold needed for it to enter parliament, after it has failed to define policy goals and board have members quarreled in public.
Nearly 2,000 Pirates delegates gathered in the western industrial city of Bochum at the weekend to try to put their differences behind them and flesh out their thin party program but agreed just a handful of the some 700 proposals.
"We're still a young party, everything is up in the air," said party member Rolf Schuemer, a 58-year-old teacher and cabaret artist, wearing the Pirates' trademark color orange.
Indeed, Schuemer said it remained to be seen whether they could ever agree policies beyond their original aims of more direct democracy, civil rights, and Internet freedom.
The Pirates initially attracted voters from across the political spectrum who were frustrated with traditional politics and their inability to influence it, albeit mainly from the left, as well as many who previously did not vote at all.
But many attracted to the Pirates have since turned away.
After the Pirates' initial success, their survival as a political force looks threatened. "It's still unclear if they will manage to make the 5 percent hurdle at the Bundestag elections," said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner of the Emnid polling institute.
Manfred Guellner, director of the Forsa polling institute, said voters who once leaned to the Pirates were likely to abstain, and some would go to other parties: "They still have a chance as frustration with the other parties remains."
VAGUE POLICY COURSE
The Pirates Party emerged in Sweden six years ago to campaign for free downloads for personal use. When the German chapter was founded months later, it was seen as a splinter group for computer nerds.
The Pirates are still led by their technology-savvy core, but they are trying to broaden their agenda to move beyond their traditional answer of "We don't have an opinion on that yet".
But their attempt at direct democracy, where each member has a right to propose and vote on policy, is unwieldy. On the table for debate in Bochum were some 700 motions on everything from the economy to foreign policy.
Even the mode of debate has to be voted on by the party's grassroot members. Members waited in queues 10 meters long to speak. Sitting hunched over laptops, sipping beer and soft drink, the Pirates debated for hours for just a few motions.
"I would have hoped for more concrete proposals, but at least we have a good roadmap now," said one 44-year-old Pirate and computer scientist, draped in a rainbow party flag.
"I'm happy we managed to agree anything because we have gained so many new members it's difficult to get consensus."
The number of members has nearly tripled to around 34,000 in a year, making it the largest party that is not represented in the Bundestag and the seventh largest party overall.
Membership however does not necessarily reflect popularity, and the Pirates had been polling third place for much of this year, ahead of all the other smaller parties including the Greens. But the rate of new members joining is slowing.
The Pirates agreed a broad-brushed economic vision aiming to provide all citizens a "fair participation" in the country's wealth. The motions agreed were mostly leftward leaning.
The party for example committed to examining the option of a basic income, a system of social security that regularly provides each citizen with a sum of money unconditionally.
The Pirates also agreed neither to pursue the aim of full employment nor to follow policy oriented solely towards growth.
Pirate leader Bernd Schloemer told Reuters the economic policies had most in common with the Greens, Germany's erstwhile anti-establishment party that has now gone mainstream, but there were also liberal elements.
The Pirates hope a focus on policy, after months of public infighting on the board, will restore their tarnished image.
"It's time for us to realize we want to do politics together, without insulting, disrespecting or ignoring one another," Schloemer said.
Party leaders say they have had a steep learning curve and are in the process of becoming more professional after being belittled in German media reports for their chaotic start.
The Pirates caught other parties by surprise in September last year, gaining nearly 9 percent of the vote for Berlin's city assembly. It went on to win seats in the state assemblies of Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia.
But the latest poll for Lower Saxony, which holds elections in January, puts the Pirates on just 3 percent. In Hesse and Bavaria, which hold votes later in the year, it is also under the 5 percent threshold.
Party member Schuemer said he wanted to focus on how different the Pirates were to anything that came before them. "It is an exciting experiment, with an uncertain outcome."
(Editing by Alison Williams)