The German Pirate Party

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Being a political obsessive is considerably easier when following German politics for one simple reason; there are more elections. Elections happen far more frequently, with each of the 16 German States having their own parliament and government. You can see polling trends crystallising into votes and administrations on a regular basis. In the last few months, a new party has achieved seats in 2 of these state legislatures1 2, and looks set to gain seats in 2 more this month. At the same time, this party is polling as the third largest party nationwide3. This party is the Pirate Party.

Founded in 2006 as a German branch of the Swedish movement promoting file-sharing, intellectual property reform, and internet freedom, the German Pirates at first enjoyed little success4. As they repeatedly failed to breach the 5% barrier required to gain seats under Germany’s proportional electoral system, they were dismissed as a fringe movement, and not one of concern to the main parties.

This opinion had to be revised after the elections for the Berlin state legislature. The Pirates ( even to the surprise of themselves) gained 8.9% of the vote, achieving seats in a state legislature for the first time, and marking the Pirate Party’s first seat gain since winning Swedish seats in the 2009 European elections5. Commentators rushed to attribute this gain to the long- present computer and hacker culture in Berlin, the German Pirate Party having been founded in the Chaos Computer Club in the city.

Their party conference in early December of last year received far more attention than previous year’s events. The attendees voted on a number of policies beyond the Pirates’ previous remit, including headline-grabbing policies such as: the legalisation of all drugs; a basic income from the state for all citizens; and a strong separation of church and state6. The Euro-crisis was also discussed, perhaps in an attempt to combat accusations that the Pirate party MPs weren’t able to deal with the serious issues in politics. With the number of attendees doubled from the previous years, it seemed the fortunes of the Pirates were definitely improving.
After the elections prompted by the collapse of the government in the small state of Saarland, Pirates were suddenly walking through the doors of another legislature, shooting past the rapidly-collapsing FDP (the liberals), and also receiving a greater share of the vote than the state branch of the Green Party7. Polls in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and the most populous German state North Rhine Westphalia indicate a similarly strong showing in the upcoming elections there.

What is prompting this sudden surge of support for the Pirate party? They appear to appeal in several different ways. The first would be as a protest vote. Dissatisfaction with mainstream politics has its own word in German (Politikverdrossenheit), and people are turning away from the main parties in droves, as they have done before, and inevitably will do so again. But whilst the Pirates rise in the polls, the traditional home for the protest vote, The Green Party, are failing to capitalise to anything like the same extent. Indeed, Green leaders have expressed worry that the Pirate Party are stealing their traditional constituency of alienated voters.

Their success in doing this might lie in the Pirates’ roots as a digital protest group. The Pirates as a party are more connected to the internet and the digital era of the 21st century than any other party. They were at the forefront of organising the wave of protests against ACTA that swept Germany, and one of the party’s more important ideas is that the internet can be used to widen participation in both democracy and society. Given that younger voters are far more familiar with the internet and social networks, the idea that these can be used to as an integral part of politics is naturally appeal to this section of the electorate the most, and this is a key part of the Pirates’ appeal.

Last but by no means least, are the pirates’ policies themselves.  Radical social liberalism combined with left-wing economic policies provides an appealing mix that can be seen replicated in the occupy camps filling public spaces and universities across the developed world, the same occupy camps that have captured both the attention of the mainstream media, and drawn the ire of the larger political parties. The policy platform the Pirate party has assembled, through its uniquely open conferences and platforms, is one that promises great change for the future, which chimes with people’s frustration that the larger parties aren’t offering solutions to the country’s problems. If they continue along the same path, and the Pirates continue to offer transparency, openness, and radicalism, their share of the vote only looks set to increase.

By Calum Young

Further Reading