The Grand Experiment: German Pirate Party Attempts to Reinvent Politics

By , Dirk Kurbjuweit, Peter Müller, and Merlind Theile

Part 2: A Never-Ending Debate

Photo Gallery: The Rise of the Pirates Photos
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A member named "Herr Bert" also finds out about the motion. Herr Bert, who is opposed to Lauer's proposal, places a counter-initiative on Liquid Feedback. The debate ensues. Members argue and explain their positions on such matters as the early resignation of a party leadership board member. Here is an excerpt:

2:26 p.m. - crackpille: If there's a re-election, the Federal Executive Board stays the same and only the open position is filled in a new election

2:27 p.m. - Anthchirp: Basically amounts to resignation of people + entire re-election of the rest

2:27 p.m. - crackpille: exactly. although I think when you get too many resignations you'll have to justify why only some members of the executive board are being put up for election

2:28 p.m. - crackpille: Because then the advantage (team, continuity) is eliminated

2:28 p.m. - crackpille: which is why you limit it to 1-2 people

2:29 p.m. - Penis: why not limit to 25%?

2:29 p.m. - Penis: that is, a relative representation

2:29 p.m. - Anthchirp: I would say set lower limit to 3 people. Then it also doesn't depend on size of the Federal Executive Board

2:29 p.m. - crackpille: 3 people who stay?

2:29 p.m. - Anthchirp: yep

This is the new sound of politics. The players, crackpille, Anthchirp and Penis, prefer to appear under pseudonyms. This is how Lauer's motion is discussed.

When the Pirates vote in March, after a month of discussion, party member Martin Haase decides in favor of Lauer's motion. Haase is a professor of Romance studies in the Bavarian city of Bamberg and a so-called super-delegate. On Liquid Feedback, Pirates can delegate their votes to other members. In this way, Haase has become probably the most powerful member of the Pirate Party.

Lauer gets 59 votes from Haase. Super delegates Klaus Peukert and Monika Belz contribute 34 and 36 votes respectively. In this way, three party members have contributed 129 of 425 votes in favor of the motion. Lauer's proposal is accepted at a rate of 72 percent on Liquid Feedback. But the debate isn't over yet. The Pirates still have to vote at the national convention, where the outcome from Liquid Feedback isn't binding.

'A Mistake'

Gerhard Anger, the former chairman of the Berlin state chapter, still opposes longer terms for board members. "After all," says Anger, "effective members will certainly be reelected after a year." The Bavarian state chairman, Stefan Körner, is also critical of the proposal. "Many people came to us because they were sick and tired of simply checking a box once every four years," says Körner. "We came onto the scene with the aspiration of bringing the leadership and the base closer together. In the current stage of development, I think a longer term is a mistake."

With such debate structures, the discussion practically never ends. Instead, it's a 24/7 process. The permanent feedback from the base distinguishes the Pirates from all other parties. Each member can participate through mailing lists, wikis or Twitter.

In the election campaign in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, party members worked together on the Internet to design campaign posters, search for venues for party conventions and prepare the party platform, all using crowd-sourcing, harnessing the wisdom of the swarm. It feels like consummate democracy. Everyone can constantly have a say and be involved in all decisions. The people are truly in charge, and policy emerges from the center. It's a very appealing model -- if it works.

But not everyone participates in the Pirates' votes. Some 639 members voted on Lauer's proposal. And they are supposed to set the direction for 25,000 other members? If one also considers the influence super-delegates wield on Liquid Feedback, only a small minority actually shapes the course of the party.

Indeed, it would seem that democracy without representation cannot function in larger groups. Besides, in the case of the Pirates, it's also questionable whether the representatives are sufficiently legitimized, given that the super-delegates are not elected officials.

The Crippling Ambient Noise on the Internet

As it is, members of parliament are only answerable to their own conscience and cannot be forced to do anything through Liquid Feedback. Things will get really complicated if the Pirates eventually become part of a coalition government. If they hope to live up to their claims of grassroots democracy, Pirate Party cabinet ministers will constantly have to obtain feedback from the base and will be torn between the demands of their coalition partner and those of the party. This also applies to other parties, but it will be an even more difficult balancing act for the Pirates. Democracy cannot survive without efficiency and effectiveness. This can contradict the desire to achieve the greatest possible transparency and participation.

"A party that plays a role in the parliamentary process, and even has power aspirations, must be organized differently," says political scientist Stephan Klecha, who studies the Pirate Party under Professor Franz Walter at the University of Göttingen in central Germany.

The ambient noise on the Internet can cripple the party. Almost every remark is commented on or questioned, and the tone isn't always particularly polite, thanks to the protection afforded by anonymity. Essentially, many Pirates lack the competency with which they are widely credited: the proper use of social media like Twitter or Facebook. Fears of provoking a shitstorm have prompted leading party members to avoid TV appearances or interviews in the major media, especially now, ahead of the national convention. "An appearance like that would reduce my chances," says Berlin Pirate Julia Schramm, who wants to become the party's national chairman.

Such fears are turning total communication into silence. As a result, some Pirates have quickly taken on one of the bad habits of classic politics: the excessive caution of top politicians and the fear of speaking one's own mind. Instead of expressing their real views, they are becoming nice, friendly and faceless -- all to make themselves more electable for the majority.

Questioning the System

The major field test for the Pirates has been underway in Berlin since Sept. 18, 2011. On that day, the party captured 8.9 percent of votes in elections to the city-state's legislature, placing 15 Pirates in the state parliament for the first time.

One of them is Martin Delius, 27. Until the election, he worked as a software developer, and now he is the head of his party's parliamentary group. Before our meeting in a café on Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt, Delius tweets that he is about to meet a journalist at the historic city square. He shows up carrying a backpack and wearing an outdoors jacket and rimless glasses, with his long, straight hair pulled back into a ponytail. Delius speaks quietly and competently.

"Our job is to be the interface between the party and real politics," says Delius. "This can't work if we constantly go into fundamental opposition mode. If we want to change things, we can't behave as if we were alone in the world. We don't want to break with tradition. We just want to question it."

It doesn't sound like the party has changed the system, rather that the system has changed the party. In the first few days in the Berlin parliament, the Pirates, just like any other politicians, bickered over the best offices and top positions, tried to find jobs for their friends and soon experienced the limits of their own claim to grassroots democracy.

Their caucus meetings are live-streamed on the Internet, which is certainly a novelty in parliamentary operations in Berlin. But for some this transparency has become annoying.

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