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27/09/2011 | Germany - Political Neophytes: Do the Berlin Pirates Have a Nationwide Future?

Spiegel Staff

The Pirate Party was the sensation of the Berlin city-state elections after winning almost 9 percent of the vote. Now, they are looking ahead to the national German election in two years' time and wondering how to build on their success. But to do so they will need more members -- and more women.


Perhaps one day people will talk about Simon Kowalewski the way they now talk about Petra Kelly and Joseph Beuys, the founders of Germany's Green Party. Perhaps he will one day be regarded as one of the architects of a new movement, as a man who changed German politics.

Kowalewski has a scraggly black beard and long hair, and wears a battered hat with an "I'm a pirate" button, sunglasses and an orange shirt. He rides around on a rickety old mountain bike and calls himself a "radical feminist."

Until recently, most Germans wouldn't even have trusted someone like Kowalewski to look after their dog. Last week, however, 8.9 percent of Berlin's voters entrusted their city's future to this man and his colleagues.

Now, as Kowalewski, who was elected to Berlin's city-state parliament on Sept. 18, walks through the German capital, strangers reach out to shake his hand and congratulate him. When the Pirate Party member arrived at a demonstration last Thursday at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz to protest the pope's visit, a crowd quickly formed around him. People sidled up alongside him, took pictures with their smartphones and immediately put them online. "We intend to shake up the political establishment over the coming five years," pledged Kowalewski, who is a system administrator by profession and ran a vegan organic café up until the elections.

One of the well-wishers, a man named Reinhold, seemed particularly enthusiastic. He is extremely happy with the success of the Pirates, he explained, but he also envisages problems: "I see the Pirates as a single-issue party."

"What issue is that?" asked Kowalewski.

"Well, freedom on the Internet and stuff like that," Reinhold replied.

From the Political Wilderness

Many Germans currently observing the Pirate Party's election success would agree with Reinhold. The newcomers seem somehow exciting, refreshing, and engaging. But what in the world do these people want?

This is one of the many questions that have arisen since the Berlin Pirates entered the political consciousness of the nation. Can we take these people seriously, or are they only interested in playing around? Do they know anything about politics? And, if so, what issues are they interested in besides the Internet?

The Pirates' supporters are also puzzling. What motivated them to elect 15 representatives from a party whose top candidate, Andreas Baum, couldn't even come close to estimating Berlin's public debt during a TV appearance? "Many millions of euros," he stammered. In reality it is over €63 billion. A video clip showing his response made the rounds on the Internet, but that didn't deter voters. According to a recent SPIEGEL opinion poll, 6 percent of respondents "definitely" would vote for the Pirates in the next national election, and an additional 18 percent could imagine voting for them.

This party, which emerged from the political wilderness in Berlin, has virtually nothing in common with the competition. It exudes a freshness and nonchalance the likes of which has not been seen in German politics for many years, although even this freshness has its limits: Pirate meetings occasionally smell like the men's locker room after a game.

On the evening of the Berlin elections, sweaty Pirates gave each other congratulatory hugs and danced under disco lights in the Ritter Butzke club. They were drinking bottled beer and profusely smoking cigarettes and joints.

Pirates Could Upend German System

The Pirates succeeded in taking 54,000 votes away from the other parties on that day. They also brought in many Berliners who had already joined the ranks of non-voters. These voters apparently see the Pirates as a genuine alternative, and that's what makes them such a threat to the established parties. Their success startled even the normally unflappable German chancellor. "Today, we have of course also talked about the Pirate Party," admitted Angela Merkel the day after the election.

If the Pirates ever managed to gain a political foothold throughout Germany, the country's party system would be thrown into the kind of turmoil generated by the foundation of the Green Party and, years later, the far-left Left Party. The current five-party system could then become a six-party system, and the political landscape would be split even further. Above all, the Pirates represent a challenge for the Greens.

Until the Berlin election, the Greens believed they were the darling of Germany's young voters -- the generation that grew up with the Internet. Now, that sense of certainty has been shaken. "We shouldn't underestimate them," warned the head of the Green Party's youth wing, Gesine Agena.

The Pirates are less demure on this front. As they celebrated at the election night party in Ritter Butzke, comments from the other parties flickered across the screens during the course of the evening. When the Greens' top candidate, Renate Künast, who is 55, asserted that the Greens were also fairly "Internet-savvy," the Pirates burst out laughing. "You're old, you're old!" they chanted throughout the club. It sounded as if the grandchildren were making fun of granny.

This was a strident challenge from another generation and culture. Beyond their differences with the other parties on political issues, the Pirates primarily object to the way politics has been conducted in Germany. The current age-old system of political participation focuses on local party chapters with their stodgy backrooms.

Old-Fashioned and Stuffy

Many people in Germany are also increasingly put off by the other pillars of this system: the necessity, for instance, of climbing up through the party ranks for years, and the many secret deals forged by the upper echelons, who look to the party's rank and file for applause, but no creativity. The Pirates also object to the country's political rituals, which have been accepted for decades, but now appear to have fallen out of step with the times: the slogans on the posters, the cute little stands in urban pedestrian zones with their displays of CDU stickers or SPD pens, and the panel discussions as venues for the closest possible interaction between voters and politicians. The Pirates essentially denounce Germany's established parties as old-fashioned and stuffy.

Their vision of a new and modern way of conducting politics could be observed last week at Pirate Party headquarters in Berlin's Mitte district. Everyone politely waited their turn to speak. The meeting resembled a Bible study group with laptops. Many Pirates were sitting slumped in their chairs, muttering and staring at their screens or, rather, at the meeting minutes, dubbed the "Pirate pad," which they collectively edit in real-time online. Everyone present can make postings, correct and erase.

Anyone who can't make it to the meeting follows the debate online. Everything is transparent, including the note: "Take a break and have a smoke."

The Pirates attempted a live Internet broadcast of their first parliamentary group meeting at the Berlin House of Representatives last Thursday, but so many viewers logged on that the stream kept crashing. Using a program called "Liquid Feedback," it is also possible for all members to submit motions over the Web, which are subsequently voted on. If a proposal achieves a certain quorum, the state executive committee deals with the issue. The party's election platform for Berlin was also prepared on the Internet using Liquid Feedback, and then approved at a party conference.

Distancing Themselves from the Established Parties

Indeed, the Pirates are deliberately setting themselves apart from the old parties. Although Germany's well-established political parties have frantically convened "Web councils" and "Internet working groups," all decisions are still made by a generation that believes that Internet politics consists of creating a Facebook page and emailing a memo announcing the next town-hall meeting.

Be that as it may, the positions adopted by the Pirates can hardly explain their success. During the Berlin election campaign, they called for an unconditional basic income guarantee for all citizens. They also want to nationalize the city's commuter rail system and make Berlin's rapid transit system free of charge. These are positions that could be described as either wacky or left-wing, depending on how sympathetically one views the Pirates. In any case, these platform tenets are not based on sound calculations.

Furthermore, the Pirates endorse the establishment of "Cannabis Social Clubs," where pot smokers can get pure weed. The party's nationwide political platform includes demands such as: "The requirement for gender-specific first names is to be abolished."

Padding for Core Issues

But most of this is just padding for a platform that hardly any voters have taken the time to read anyway. The Pirates enthusiastically put forward their positions primarily on two core issues: They reject every form of Internet censorship and speak out against data retention, in other words the storage of communication data by the government for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes.

These areas of focus have much to do with the party's brief history. It is the story of a generation that grew up with the Internet and resists all attempts by political parties and corporations to regulate its digital world.

While the origins of Germany's green movement date back to anti-nuclear demonstrations in places like Wackersdorf and Gorleben, the Pirate movement has its roots in Sweden. This is where the original "Piratpartiet" was founded in early 2006 in reaction to massive legal action against the owners of, a popular file-sharing site for films, music, books and other media content on the Web. Many of these files are pirated copies of Hollywood movies and pop albums.

The harsh sentences handed down to the defendants sparked a wave of solidarity. The head of "The Pirate Bay," Rickard Falkvinge, spoke of a "declaration of war by the establishment and politicians against an entire generation." Like all movements, the pirates now had their founding myth, and Falkvinge was their martyr. The Swede made a special trip to the German capital to take part in the Berlin Pirates' victory celebration. When the results were confirmed, he had tears in his eyes.

In the fall of 2009, three years after it was officially founded, the German chapter of the Pirate Party received a major boost from German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Her proposal "to block" child pornography websites and blend in "stop signs" politicized the German Internet community like no other issue. This earned her the nickname "Zensursula" (a portmanteau of the German word for censorship, Zensur, and her first name), and the Pirates suddenly found themselves on the political map. During the German general election in 2009, they received nearly 848,000 votes nationwide, or 2 percent. It was the first chapter in a political success story that has celebrated its latest victory in Berlin.

Core or Complete?

Now, the Pirates want to conquer all of Germany, but first they have to solve a series of structural problems. The national Pirate Party has done little but remain mired in internal squabbles over the past two years.

Within Germany's Green Party, there was a famous conflict between the so-called "Realos" (pragmatists) and the "Fundis" (fundamentalists). The equivalent within the Pirates is an ongoing struggle between the "Kernis" (named for the German word for "core") and the "Vollis" (from the word for "complete"). The Kernis believe that a core program with Internet-related issues is enough, while the Vollis want a complete program that covers all important political issues. In some state chapters, proponents of grassroots democracy have fought bitterly with those in favor of party structures. The Pirates devote their party conferences to wrangling over personnel issues. Their current leader, Sebastian Nerz, a former CDU man, is already the fourth party chairman.

There is still no strategy for how the Pirates can capitalize on their Berlin election success in the next national election. The party executive first intends to discuss the matter during the coming weeks. However, the Pirates have already drawn one conclusion: Their street election campaign, says Nerz, with its many posters and information stands, was crucial to the electoral success in Berlin. "We have to present ourselves as a party to a far greater extent offline," he adds.

That could prove to be difficult, though, since the party currently has fewer than 13,000 members. This means that the Pirates don't have sufficient staff to run election campaigns in large German states. They are still primarily rooted in the cities. Another problem is that they are in need of more female pirates. There is only one woman among the 15 representatives in the Berlin state parliament, and only a small minority of the party members are women. Two years ago, a Berlin woman named Leena Simon called for a separate "female pirate" network to counteract the paternalism of male party colleagues. Her local state chapter gave Simon a warning for behavior that was detrimental to the party.

What's more, they now have to prove that they can live up to the hopes that have been placed in them. The first test will be whether, in addition to successfully campaigning for election, the 15 deputies in Berlin can also engage in politics.

'You Have to Know a Lot of Things'

Last Thursday, Fabio Reinhardt became one of the first newly elected Pirates to explore the Berlin House of Representatives, home to the city-state's parliament. He somewhat hesitantly ordered a meat-and-tomato dish with French fries in the cafeteria, got to know the cashier ("Did you get your ID yet, young man?"), and set out in search of the former FDP rooms that will now be used by the Pirates (the business-friendly FDP no longer have seats in the parliament, having failed to reach the 5 percent hurdle for representation).

Reinhardt roamed through the long corridors, past paintings of Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl and Richard von Weizsäcker, a former West Berlin mayor and German president. The building is enormous, and Reinhardt seemed lost. He was just about to give up when an adviser to the parliament's budget committee took him under her wing. This determined woman immediately drew him into her office. She handed him a copy of the budget for the coming years -- a grand tome with hundreds of pages.

"You have to know a lot of things," said the woman, "and people won't explain everything to you here." Reinhardt gazed dubiously at the pile of paper. It didn't look as if he felt like taking the plunge.

"But we don't need 15 budget experts," he protested.

"Yes, you do," replied the woman. Reinhardt seemed more hesitant than ever. At that moment, he probably realized that the real business of politics was about to begin.


*Translated from the German by Paul Cohenli,1518,788346,00.html

Spiegel (Alemania)


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