03/27/2012 03:35 PM

The World From Berlin

Pirates Could 'Wind Up as Nokia' Instead of Apple

Following its entry into a second state parliament in Germany, the Internet activist Pirate Party hopes to make it into national politics next year. But the young party still needs to develop its policies, critics say. German commentators on Tuesday explore the difficult trail ahead for the upstart party.

After being voted into its second German state parliament this year, debate has begun about the possibility that the Internet activist Pirate Party could clear the five-percent hurdle to enter into the Bundestag at the national level after the upcoming 2013 federal election.

Riding high on Sunday's success in Saarland, the party on Tuesday indicated its intention to go national. The Pirates cleared the 5-percent hurdle in the tiny state of just 1 million, beating even the established environmentalist Green Party to garner 7.4 percent of the vote. The party scored its first state-level victory in the capital city of Berlin last September, winning a sensational 8.9 percent of votes.

"Of course we'll run in 2013 to potentially also work in the federal government," Pirate Party deputy leader Bernd Schlömer told daily Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. "We want to shape politics in governments in the long term, and not just be described as a protest party."

Having founded their party on a platform of support for Internet freedom and civil rights, leaders say they plan to give emphasis to issues they feel are neglected by the political establishment, such as data privacy protection, transparency and copyright law, Schlömer said.

Polls show that more than 5 percent of voters currenty support the Pirate Party at the national level, the minimum amount of votes needed to enter the federal parliament, the Bundestag. Following Sunday's election, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, which scored the greatest number of votes in Sunday's election, had known for some time that "the Pirates are a substantial factor."

Major Challenges Ahead

The Pirates' entry into a second state parliament is "a further important step toward establishing themselves," Göttingen political scientist Alexander Hensel told public radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur on Tuesday, saying he believed the party could achieve lasting success, although it still faces major challenges.

"Right now they just have an enormous number of new members and these new members must be integrated into the party," Hensel said, adding the party's direct democracy structures would make this "enormously difficult."

Meanwhile, critics of the Pirates have pointed to voter polls as proof that the young party still needs to clarify its platform issues. A poll by public broadcaster ARD revealed this week that 23 percent of its Saarland support came from new voters. A large number of voters disappointed in the other more established parties also cast their ballots for the Pirates, despite revealing in the poll that their understanding of the party's actual policies remained vague.

Likely aware of this problem, national party chairman Sebastian Nerz told the daily Passauer Neue Presse on Tuesday that after some adjustments, the Pirate Party would make a good potential coalition partner in the future. "It's important that we establish our issues," he said with an eye to upcoming state elections. "Then we'll be ready to be a coalition partner."

Developments at the state level are often harbingers of things to come at the national level in Germany, and given Sunday's debacle in Saarland for the CDU's junior coalition partner in the federal government, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), a fresh debate has ignited over possible future constellations for government coalitions at the national level. With only 1.2 percent of voters casting ballots for the FDP, it will no longer hold seats in the state parliament. If FDP supporters continue to jump ship in a series of upcoming regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holsterin this spring, Merkel may have to find another coalition partner in order to secure a third term as chancellor. Some commentators have suggested that next year's vote may produce a repeat of the so-called grand coalition of conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) that governed Germany under Merkel from 2005 until 2009.

On Tuesday, Germany's commentators look at the Pirate Party's future prospects and offer mixed views.

The leftist daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The success of these political buccaneers is too closely tied to the fact that their opponents look too old. Of those who voted for the Pirates, 85 percent said it was out of frustration over the other parties. Only seven percent said they made the decision based on the substance of the Pirate Party's policies. ... For this reason the three upcoming state elections this year are both a boon and a burden. On the one hand, they provide a chance to use the current high approval ratings to make it into state parliaments. On the other, the party, having entered into the parliaments, will work towards policy consolidation and establishing viable working structures. The Pirates will conform themselves to the media pattern expected in politics -- and, with every step towards professionalism, they will lose their charm as an outsider."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Polls show that voters selected the Pirates because of their substance in only a small percentage of cases -- three-quarters of their supporters don't even understand the party's platforms. Indeed, it will be difficult for the Greens, Social Democrats or Free Democrats to quickly win back Pirate Party defectors by quickly adding a few paragraphs on Internet policy to their party platforms."

"The Pirates are a party that is about an attitude towards life. Their supporters long for something new with a technical fun factor that promises optimism, clarity, simplicity and user friendliness in politics. The Pirates are what the Apple generation imagines a political party to be."

"But politics can't be based on an attitude alone. As charming as the naiveté offensive was in the party's early days, in the end people want representatives who aren't just like the voters themselves -- that is, politically interested, but clueless. Instead they want professionals who don't just use lofty terms like 'transparency' and 'more democracy,' but can also explain how they plan to back these up with substance. And then they need to actually do it, even if it's necessary to make compromises, alienate supporters and call dogmas into question. If the Pirate Party doesn't learn this soon, the group that aspires to become the Apple Computer of political parties will instead wind up as Nokia."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Chancellor Angela Merkel is watching her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, die right before her very eyes, while the Pirate Party hoists its flag as the new power in the political spectrum. That may sounds alarming to the leadership in her Christian Democrats, but it isn't. The greatest danger for a smooth transition from her coalition with the FDP to a grand coalition with the Social Democrats is over in one shot. The Pirates are mainly taking young voters away from the Greens, weakening the project of an SPD-Greens coalition aimed at taking Merkel down."

"Still, in a short amount of time the Pirates have turned the political landscape upside down, and the established parties in Berlin are nervous. With the exception of a grand coalition, there are hardly any stable options for power in a parliament with six parties. But the growing strength of the Pirates and the languishing Free Democrats technically give Merkel a different option -- a coalition with the FDP and the Pirates. After all, everyone knows the Chancellor can get along with almost anyone."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The Pirates' aggressive naiveté and the distance they emphasize between themselves and the mainstream party system can be seen in the way they all type away at their laptops at party conferences, and in the absence of ties among its left-wing ideologists. In that sense, the Pirates' resentment towards the political establishment is in the same vein as that of the American Tea Party movement. The protest is based not on content -- a fact the party readily admits -- but rather on a sense of reckoning. ... The ideology of the non-specialists quickly devolves to a sense of self-righteousness."

"The beauty of transparency is the openness with which the Pirates reflect on just how narrow their political programs are. Each homepage contains a tag cloud featuring the most important terms: ACTA, copyright law and protests, for example. The homepage of the Saarland candidate, who on Sunday expressed his reproach for the established political world in such an adolescent manner, also includes something else: fun. Those who understand it in expert circles call it 'Geek Humor,' and with that they mean the shy snicker of pasty outsiders one can recognize in any high school. In (Pirate candidate) Michael Hilberer's case, it is a scene from a porn film that has been reconstructed using Legos. Those who think it was an isolated incident, can just click on the next entry under 'fun,' which shows a naked blonde swimming away from a shark."

"The technological lead enjoyed by the Pirates, their knowledge of computer programs and hardware, and the fact that party conferences actually resemble hacker parties, appears to be the digital trimmings of an analogue conventionality. Those who don't own a computer are cut off from this kind of openness. And the childish belief of unconditional political participation and engagement is already in sharp contrast to the secret science of the separate world of geeks, in which those who don't see technological developments as the hub of our political world are just glossed over. The established parties are responding to the Pirates with curious respect. But it would be better if they took them even more seriously -- and attacked them for their lack of substance."

-- Kristen Allen, with wire reports


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