Pirate party takes Berlin

After an unexpected showing in Germany's elections, 15 internet-freedom activists become legislators

Published October 7, 2011 1:00PM (EDT)

 A member of Germany's Pirate Party holds a flag of the party  (AP/Gero Breloer)
A member of Germany's Pirate Party holds a flag of the party (AP/Gero Breloer)

BERLIN, Germany -- They arrived at Berlin's imposing parliament building, mostly wearing hoodies and sneakers, carrying orange pirate flags, the symbol of their party.

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As they tried to enter the city-state's legislature the day after their historic win, a stern woman at the security desk told them, "nein," those party symbols are strictly "verboten."

And so began the first day of the Pirate Party's newly changed status as legislators, after an unexpected election result that has shaken up the staid world of German politics.

The band of internet-freedom activists shocked themselves and pretty much everyone else when they won close to 9 percent in the Berlin state election on Sept. 18, allowing them to send 15 very unconventional new politicians to the regional parliament.

And a recent opinion poll gave the Pirates 7 percent nationally, enough to make it into the federal parliament.

A week after their Berlin triumph, however, it was clear the astonishment had not worn off. They hadn't prepared to win or to take office.

Awkwardness has ensued, even on the part of the fledgling parliamentarians.

"My wife was not amused," said new Pirate lawmaker Pavel Mayer.

The long-haired 46-year-old started a software business earlier this year, ploughing his savings and pension into the company. Now he, along with three of his employees in the tiny company, will have to take time off work to serve in parliament.

Mayer says he will hire new staff but hopes to juggle both jobs for the moment. Having already worked crazy hours during the campaign, he said he's used to it: "When the things you do are fun, then you don't mind spending many hours on it."

The new party was founded in 2006, an offshoot of the Swedish party of the same name. Its original platform involved focusing on data protection, file-sharing and censorship. It has expanded that to include a range of social issues and demands for increased transparency and citizen participation. The party's average member is 29 years old.

The Pirates are determined to set an example in the Berlin parliament. In general, the impression they've made since their surprise Berlin triumph is one of exuberant chaos. At their very first meeting as a parliamentary group, the 14 men and one woman were already openly bickering over whether or not future meetings should be streamed to the public or held behind closed doors. Many argued that meeting in private would betray their pledge to radical transparency during the campaign.

It took them another week of arguments and deliberations to elect a parliamentary floor leader. In the end, the post went to Andreas Baum, the fresh-faced electrical engineer who headed their highly successful and irreverent election campaign. His laid-back attitude went down well with younger voters, unperturbed when he stumbled over thorny issues like how much debt Berlin currently has. When asked on a TV show, he guessed "many millions of euros." The true amount is €63 billion.

Many supporters are hoping that the young, tech-savvy crew will bring a breath of fresh air to stuffy German politics. Others wonder if they will change the system -- or if the system will change or even eradicate them.

Even so, their lack of political nous is actually part of their appeal -- if not their very purpose.

"That is exactly what they say they want," said Christoph Bieber, professor of political science at the University of Duisburg. "Not to decide things hierarchically; to listen to every voice; and to really react to what is said and to include that in their work. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the new situation."

The party has dubbed their approach "liquid democracy," whereby citizens can directly influence the politics from the bottom up. Using a computer program called "Liquid Feedback," party members can submit motions online. Proposals are then voted on. If enough members back them, then the executive committee has to adopt it. The party's election manifesto in Berlin was created using the program.

Although the party is hoping to change things, the danger is that they will lose their edge as they get sucked into professional politics, says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "The pirates can compensate for this by really building on this liquid democracy and implementing it internally," he said. "This way of communicating, not from the top down but horizontally, could be a good way of combating this danger."

In the huge lobby of Berlin's grand parliament building, Susanne Graf, at 19 now the youngest member of parliament, said the party will have to in some way adapt to the system, adhering to the rules and acting properly. "We aren't going to go running through the corridors screaming," she said. "But if we insist that we have our issues, that they are important to us, then we can change the way we behave to a certain extent."

In addition to her new ID for the parliament, Graf has just picked up her brand-new student card. She is slated to study mathematical economics beginning this month, but will have to arrange with her lecturers how to combine her work as a politician with her studies.

"I know it's going to be tough," she said.

As Graf and Mayer learn the ropes, the other political parties are scrambling to analyse how much of a threat this unknown entity poses. The Greens are particularly alarmed. The environmentalists, who 30 years ago were the new non-conformist rebels on the block, are increasingly regarded as part of the establishment. The Greens lost the most voters to the Pirates, with 17,000 switching to the new party in Berlin.

Gesine Agena, Green Party youth wing spokesperson, said the party is looking at where it went wrong and how it can win back the voters.

"I don't think it was just about the internet. I would say it is about the fact that they had lots of catchy themes, and a campaign that spoke to young people." Campaign pledges – legalizing cannabis, improving Berlin's education system, making public transport free and establishing a basic minimum wage -- had a lot of appeal. They made the Pirates seem "cool, young and fresh," she said.

Agena worries that the Pirates could continue to take votes away from the Greens and the center-left Social Democrats in the 2013 federal election, affecting the formation of the next government. "You have to take them seriously as a party. You can't just expect them to go away."

Mayer says the party's appeal is that completely normal people appeared to be standing for election. "Not political professionals, who have learned to be smooth and say nothing when speaking to the media," he said. "I believe people don't want that any more. There is a huge desire to see real people in politics."

Not everyone agrees. Those "real people" looked very much like a gang of mostly white males when they appeared in front of the media after the Berlin vote. A major criticism of the party has been the lack of women or minorities as candidates.

Graf says she thinks it's a pity that she is the only woman who ran (another female candidate dropped out). "There are a lot of really competent women in the party but they didn't want to go forward, and if they don't want to you can't force them," she said.

The party has also received flak for having a flimsy platform, more interested in the form than the content of democracy. For example, there's little clarity as to how exactly they would pay for their many attractive-sounding pledges.

Graf said that for a party that is just five years old, its program is actually very comprehensive. "Naturally there are areas where we are lacking, for example, economic policy, but we always said that we would only speak about things that we know something about."

Mayer points out that the party has had to come up with their program without any paid staff. And he argued that whatever its deficits, the party is full of exceptionally bright young people who learn more quickly and more efficiently than those in other parties.

"We don't have a lot of money, but we use a lot of modern tools, and we are used to exchanging opinions quickly on the internet and organizing."

With their new high profile, there is now enormous pressure on the rookie troupe to do well in Berlin.

"The pressure is not just from within Germany," Graf said. "It's from across the world. We have Pirate parties in 44 countries, including the US."

"If we blow it, then we can't just say it was the Berliners who messed up," she added. "That's why we really have to make a huge effort."

By Siobhan Dowling

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