BOCHUM, Germany The leader of Germany's Pirates, whose shock success in four state elections thrust it onto the political stage, apologised on Saturday for the fierce infighting that has contributed to a plunge in popularity and called for unity.
The Pirates have seen support drop from 13 percent six months ago to under 5 percent now, the threshold needed for it to enter parliament at next year's federal election.
A strong showing at the election could split the leftist vote and help secure victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives.
But pollsters say voters initially attracted by the party's anti-establishment sheen - it began as a campaign group for Internet freedom - have been put off by its sketchy stance on policy issues as well as the quarrelling among board members that led two to resign last month.
"It is time for us to realise we want to do politics together, without insulting, disrespecting or ignoring one another," Pirate leader Bernd Schloemer told the nearly 2000 party members on Saturday at a two-day conference in the western, industrial German city of Bochum.
"I too have made errors and I would like to apologise for them to you," Schloemer told members bedecked in orange, its trademark colour, and hunched over their laptops.
One board member had resigned in October, saying it was impossible to work with one of the other members. Another resigned after fierce criticism of her publishers' decision to take action against illegal copies of her book.
Schloemer sat with other board members on Friday sharing a bottle of whiskey on stage at an informal open-door meeting after talks behind closed doors to put aside their differences. Beer bottles chinked among the audience as Pirates gathered from across the country.
The Pirates took their name after being accused of downloading copyrighted information and material from the Internet. They believe all the world's knowledge should be available to everyone.
But what started out as a campaign group caught other parties by surprise in September last year by gaining nearly 9 percent of the vote for Berlin's city assembly.
Since then, it has also won more than 5 percent of the vote and seats in the state assemblies of Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia.
The Pirates' surging popularity threatens to change the national political landscape. Given that they draw more voters from the left than the right, their strength raises the chances of Merkel's conservatives winning the 2013 elections.
Pollsters say the Pirates are above all attracting voters fed up with traditional politics, many who might previously have voted for the Greens, a party of one-time rebels who have become part of the establishment.
"I've always been interested in politics but there were moments when I felt like giving it up because I was frustrated," said Lisa Collins, a 26-year-old party member, sporting a silver ring in her lip and green streaks in her hair. "But the Pirates gave me the opportunity to help shape politics."
With this weekend's conference, the Pirates aim to fill in some of the holes in their programme. Members will debate and vote on some of the roughly 700 motions on everything from the economy and energy provision to foreign policy.
Thorsten Frankel, treasurer for the Pirates in Bavaria, said he was not convinced by the apologies, but the party was on a steep learning curve and he hoped it would focus now on policy.
"At the end of the day, what is most important for us is to develop our programme, and these quarrels, that have been dealt with slightly awkwardly, simply disturb our work," he said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)
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