Pirate Party makes noise in German politics

Uses Web power to loot voters

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BERLIN — They were christened the “children of Marx and Microsoft” by one German newspaper last year and dismissed by many political insiders as lunatics and illegal downloaders.

Now, eight months later, the Pirates are represented in three German statehouses, are poised to enter a fourth Sunday and are polling nationally at 14 percent.

The small, upstart party known as the Pirates has the political establishment sitting up and taking notice.

Analysts attribute the Pirates’ success, in part, to many voters’ feelings of alienation from traditional center-left and center-right parties.

“The party is something that people are projecting their hopes onto at the moment,” said Stephan Kletcha, a political science researcher at Erlangen’s Friedrich Alexander University.

In September, the Pirates won 15 seats in the Berlin Senate. The unprecedented win was a surprise even for party members, officials said, but it gave them the momentum to win seats in the western state of Saarland in March, led by 22-year-old former Goth model Jasmin Maurer.

On May 6, voters in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein gave the Pirates six seats in parliament.

Polls forecast the Pirates will win more Sunday in the legislature of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Now, some of these “swashbucklers” are eyeing real power as part of state coalition governments.

“We are definitely ready,” said Andreas Baum, who is the party’s leader in Berlin’s state parliament and was one of the first German Pirates elected to parliament in September. “But the fact is that a lot of parties don’t want to do coalition deals with us.”

Mr. Baum, a former telecommunications service technician, said he has become accustomed to his job but still finds politicians from the established parties “alienating.”

As a result, he said, the Pirates have succeeded in taking disenchanted voters from all political parties, not just the left.

Often criticized for lacking detailed policies, the party, created in 2006, has captured the German “Occupy” demographic and others with talk of grass-roots, Internet-based democracy.

Party leaders say the medium is as important as the message. On Liquid Feedback, an Internet platform that the party created, Pirates propose and edit suggested policies. If 10 percent of all users of the platform agree on a specific proposal, party members can vote to adopt it as policy.

The party is still developing its national agenda and has few foreign policy proposals. Its key issues are the legalization of drugs, less state surveillance of the digital revolution and a national minimum income.

Analysts say the party’s lack of “proper” decorum matches its lack of policy, but that its amateurish, youthful image is what attracts some first-time voters.

The dress code at a recent meeting of Pirate lawmakers in the Berlin statehouse was scrupulously scruffy. Thick-waisted Pirates were almost uniformly decked out in black T-shirts and ill-fitting jeans. Apple computers were de rigueur.

“A lot of their popularity is based on media effect,” said Mr. Kletcha. “The challenge [for the Pirates] now is to hold on to the voters who are toying with voting for them.”

But the party may have to decide whether it wants seats in parliament or social transformation first. The utopian wing of the Pirate Party wants a different political order, much like the Greens of the 1980s — the once-radical leftists who have grown into a moderate liberal party and whom the Pirates have upstaged.

“I’d like a new political system in which [lawmakers] vote according to conscience rather than party,” said Daniel Schweighofer, who administers Liquid Feedback, and who acknowledged that he holds on to some of his old anarchist ideals. “The Pirate Party isn’t important. What is crucial are our goals.”

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