Germany’s Pirate Party: Charting a perilous course

The rise of the Pirate Party is a transient expression of underlying anti-party sentiment and a protest vote against the policies and actions of the established parties

Something astonishing occurred between September 2011 and May 2012. Germany’s Pirate Party, until then a small, little-known political group, won its first-ever seats in a state parliament. In fact, it took 15 seats in Berlin’s house of representatives, with 8.9% of the vote on 18 September 2011. This success was repeated in Saarland (March 2012, with 7.4%), and in May in Schleswig Holstein (8.2%) and North Rhine-Westphalia (7.8%). The Left party (Die Linke) lost its seats in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein as its vote dropped below the 5% threshold.

Currently, the Pirate Party has more than 45 Landtag (state parliament) members and 193 municipal council seats. Party membership also rose spectacularly, from 12,000 in June 2011 to 34,000 in September 2012. Membership is now around 33,000, although only 11,000 pay the subs that entitle them to vote on Pirate Party decisions. Set up in 2006, with 53 people attending its founding meeting in Berlin, the party initially played no role whatsoever. It had no presence on the streets and very modest election results. At the 2009 general election, it received 2% of the vote and a little more attention.

This was to change dramatically in the weeks before the Berlin state election in 2011. Not just the German press but international media, too, pounced on the Pirate Party story. Scarcely a day passed without some news item or feature about this ‘completely new party’. In the spring of 2012, Germany’s leading opinion pollster, Forsa – which asks: ‘how would you vote if there was an election this Sunday?’ – predicted that the Pirates could expect double figures at the polls.

The rise of the Pirate Party as a transient expression of underlying anti-party sentiment and a protest vote against the policies and actions of the established parties is by no means a uniquely German phenomenon. Apart from in 2009, however, when a candidate of Piratpartiet, the original Swedish version of Pirates, was elected to the European parliament, such success has eluded them elsewhere.

There are similarities with the dramatic experience of Icelander Jón Gnarr and his Besti flokkurinn (Best Party). Campaigning on demands for the purchase of a polar bear for the local zoo, the free distribution of towels at Iceland’s hot springs and a drug-free parliament by 2020, his party won 34.7% in the Reykjavík council elections in May 2010. It emerged as the strongest party to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Alliance. More recently, the Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo in Italy received over 25% of the vote. Clearly, conditions are fertile for the growth of this type of party.

In the wake of the economic crisis with all its consequences, scepticism towards political parties has grown and has been compounded by blatant pro-business and banking policies, corruption scandals and the arrogance of the political elite. Many people, especially the young, have shunned elections or voted for anti-party candidates. The absence of a mass left party, or the failure of the left, also paves the way for anti-parties.

Surveys revealed that the main reason people gave for voting for the Pirate Party was because ‘it is different to the other parties’. Nonetheless, few of its voters were confident about its ability to take up or solve the problems affecting them. On the contrary, it seems that many do not feel that the Pirates had any competence in key policy issues. The Pirate Party’s main campaign themes of internet freedom, file-sharing and democracy actually had a negligible influence on voting behaviour.

The Pirate Party’s election campaign in Berlin was dominated by a massive poster drive advertising the messages: ‘Our candidates are just normal people not remote professional politicians’; ‘we are new, different’; and ‘we have the questions, you have the answers’. The non-party character was in tune with general anti-establishment sentiment and a profound distrust of politics, parliamentarians and party politics. For many of the Pirates’ voters it was either their first election or they had previously been non-voters.

The Pirate Party has very little affinity with the working class and does not represent a class position. It does not view itself as a party of the working class, and even claims that it is neither right nor left, but propounds a so-called ‘post ideology’. Yet, the claim that class contradictions no longer exist and that, therefore, there is no reason to adopt a position on social issues is, firstly, not new and, secondly, an ideology which, in the final analysis, upholds the status of those with power and influence.

It is difficult to offer a precise political analysis or pin down the policies of the Pirate Party. This is partly because it makes so few statements and ignores so many issues. It is also because the views of its representatives diverge – and its spokespersons deny being mouthpieces of the party. The current party chair, Bernd Schlömer, a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, has openly supported the German Bundeswehr’s military missions abroad – even though he has also pledged to uphold Pirate Party decisions on these matters. The political programme of the Pirate Party is probably best described as that of a left-liberal/social libertarian party, although there are some clear regional differences, at least with respect to the party programme.

The swing to the Pirate Party, especially among younger voters, spoke volumes about the prevailing disenchantment with established parties. Its rise and success, however short-lived, is a warning to the Left Party and warrants serious discussion, especially the amount of votes it lost to the Pirates. Finding the right answers, especially drawing the lessons from the broader European experience, is an important task. The only correct approach must be to urge the Left Party to turn outwards and transform itself into an open, fighting, anti-establishment party.

Socialists can find plenty to criticise in the Pirate Party. Most of its programme – even its so-called core themes of transparency, net democracy and data protection – is inadequate and offers no solutions to the major issues affecting the working class. Its concept of grassroots democracy does not hold water. In fact, its structures tend to be undemocratic and unfair – theoretically, everyone can attend party conferences but, in practice, members often cannot afford to attend.

The renowned software, Liquid Democracy, is an option suitable only for those few people able and willing to engage in protracted online debates. From the outset it was clear that only those with no work or family commitments could keep up with this form of involvement. The chief drawback, however, is that it is an unsuitable tool for actively campaigning or intervening in the issues affecting society.

Since its dramatic arrival in the respective state parliaments, the Pirate Party has taken gigantic strides to catch up with and emulate the political establishment. It is not simply that its representatives are not committed to taking a worker’s wage and, instead, accept the full parliamentary salary and expenses. They have also failed to address a single major issue or to use their parliamentary status to intervene in support of issues of significant public concern, or in extra-parliamentary movements and protests.

This explains the disillusionment of its voters and why the Pirate Party failed to get elected in the Lower Saxony state elections in January 2013 – significantly, neither did the Left Party. Recent polls suggest that the Pirate Party would now come below the 5% threshold. Unless this changes before the September 2013 general election, it is extremely unlikely that it could gain a single seat in the German Bundestag.

Nelli Tügel (Sozialistische Alternative – CWI Germany)

Translated by Sue Powell

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March 2013