Sinking Ship: Voters Growing Disillusioned with Germany's Pirate Party

Part 2: The Party Faces a Lack of Content

Photo Gallery: Are the Pirates on a Sinking Ship? Photos
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The party's penchant for technical restructuring may have served in the beginning to obscure its substantive shortcomings, but it's since become clear that the Pirate Party lacks an overarching system of beliefs that would unify its individual political positions. Voters can't tell what the party stands for, and even the party's members don't seem entirely sure.

This lack of content is already having an effect in the state parliaments where the party is represented. The newcomers are gaining a reputation as a party of self-promoters, whose members most often garner big headlines for bizarre behavior -- for example, one representative in North Rhine-Westphalia uses Twitter to describe her one-night stands and broken condoms. Whether party members do make changes that affect political content depends on individual skill, regardless of whether the matter is really a Pirate Party concern or not.

The election in Schleswig-Holstein in May swept Pirate Party members into the state parliament who seem more like independent candidates than members of the same party, each pursuing an individual agenda. One, who also works as a customs official, tends to represent the interests of customs officials, while Angelika Beer, former national party chair for the Green Party, focuses on environmental policies just like in the old days.

One party member with a particularly maverick approach is Patrick Breyer, the Pirates' parliamentary group leader in Schleswig-Holstein. Breyer, who has a Ph.D. in law, battles against government surveillance of any kind, from data storage to drones. He opposes Germany's strict address registration requirements and cell phone tracking. Not even fellow party members know precisely where Breyer lives, and he regularly switches out his cell phone's prepaid SIM card.

Breyer even declined to provide the parliament's administration with his current address and date and place of birth, which meant he didn't receive his pay for months. Eventually an agreement was reached -- Breyer only had to provide his address -- and the payments went through.

'Totalitarian Characteristics'

The Pirates' behavior annoys other parties even as a matter of principle. "Instead of resolutions reached by the parliamentary group as a whole, each member pursues his or her own policies," complains Ralf Stegner, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) parliamentary group in Schleswig-Holstein.

He also sees the Pirates' concept of transparency as having "some totalitarian characteristics." For example, the party's desire to make sessions of the parliament's Council of Elders completely public is "absolutely divorced from reality, pure dogmatism," Stegner says.

He sees this general suspicion of any form of confidentiality as tying in with "anti-parliamentary reflexes among the general public," and adds that the Pirate Party has in fact brought some of the opposition closer to the ruling government, if only out of a need to keep things from becoming too much of a mess. It is another way in which the Pirate Party has been responsible for creating the disenchantment among voters.

When the German Pirate Party was founded in 2006, the battle for civil liberties and a less regulated Internet were at the forefront. Computer nerds saw their virtual world under threat from Internet censorship and data storage, and the party successfully took up this subject that other political parties were largely ignoring.

Not until much later did the Pirate Party deliberately present itself in election campaigns as an anti-establishment party, with demands for civic participation and transparency taking a major role. Grassroots democracy, for example, only became an official part of the party's platform in May 2010.

That change did briefly win over many protest voters, but in practice the transformation has proven difficult. For example, the Berlin Pirates are the only ones to regularly use voting software called LiquidFeedback to assess party members' opinions, while their colleagues in Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland have not introduced the software at all.

'We Work Best Under Pressure'

In North Rhine-Westphalia, meanwhile, the Pirate Party's parliamentarians have used the software to gather general opinions on just two issues so far. A poll of Pirate Party voters there concerning a proposed law to regulate circumcision showed 17 in favor of fighting the proposed law, two in abstention and one against -- 20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants. It's a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.

So once again, it's up to the party's members. The plan is to finally fill in the gaps in the party platform at the Pirate Party's national convention in November. Some members also want to force a new election for party leaders in January, even though that election isn't supposed to take place for months.

Current party boss Schlömer is still debating whether he should run for the position again. The party needs a better infrastructure, he says, such as paid office employees. But it doesn't have the money. As a result, party leaders are left with hope as their main currency. "We work best under pressure," says Matthias Schrader. "If there's one thing we can do well, it's an election campaign."

At the moment, though, even the party's grassroots base, usually so dedicated, seems to have burned out. A request from the party's national leaders for members to submit ideas to a working group on the election campaign produced few suggestions from the party's ranks -- and not even half of the party's regional-level groups participated.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.

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