The Grand Experiment: German Pirate Party Attempts to Reinvent Politics

By , Dirk Kurbjuweit, Peter Müller, and Merlind Theile

Part 4: In Search of a Coherent Platform

Photo Gallery: The Rise of the Pirates Photos
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As such, it is clear what the Pirates are against. They are opposed to the pointless storage of telephone and Internet connection data of all citizens, as the EU requires, and the supposed "nanny state" in general. They believe that existing copyright law is just as outmoded as the current patent system. And they reject all forms of web censorship or warning messages on illegal web content.

What Pirates are for isn't quite as clear. When it comes to alternative solutions and positive counter-proposals, their agenda seems oddly blank in the sixth year of their existence. This even applies to some core issues. In their platform, the Pirates only speak out against the current copy protection systems, and in favor of liberalizing non-commercial duplication. Many Pirates also reject business models like kino.to and Megaupload, sites which hosted a significant number of copyright violations in recent years.

The result is anything but a clear profile, even though these are the issues espoused by the party's core members in the hacker and gamer community. But with the party growing so quickly, that core group is now losing influence.

When candidates were being sought for the state parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia in late March, the applicants in the first round were almost all new members. "We call them five-minute Pirates," says Dirk Schatz, 33, a Pirate Party candidate for the state parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia. He is sitting in the party's campaign headquarters in the western city of Essen, clicking his way through the profiles of other applicants. "I don't even know most of them," he says. Click. "Member since end of 2011." Click. "2012." Click. "2012 again. What's he done for the party so far?" Click. "Regular attendee at the Lemgo round table. That's just great."

After the "grilling of candidates," the questioning of applicants at the state party convention, hardly any new members made it onto the candidate list. Nevertheless, the attempts by careerists to hijack the party are on the rise. One even offered the party leadership €10,000 ($13,200) for a spot on the list.

Left-Wing Libertarianism

"We are undergoing a transformation," says Michele Marsching, 33, a software developer and the state chairman of the North Rhine-Westphalia Pirates. "In the past, people in our party ran for office out of pure idealism. Those days are gone, and rightly so. No chairman of a company with 26,000 employees would do his job for free."

The new generation includes those who are attracted to being able to have a voice in politics, and they are bringing along their own issues and views. Virtually anything is possible.

There is no real program beyond the core issues. The basic program includes four paragraphs on the environment, and nothing on economic and financial policy. On the other hand, the Pirates campaign against bans on dancing on Good Friday and in favor of eliminating lists of dog breeds. The Berlin Pirates represent classically leftist positions: an unconditional basic income, a minimum wage and free local public transportation.

In principle, the party is trying to combine the leftist focus on the redistribution of resources with libertarian and individualistic civil rights positions -- which makes for a colorful mix.

Its positions are based on an idealistic worldview in which people act responsibly and abuse neither their freedoms nor benefits provided by the state. Even without controls on the Internet, people remain reasonably civilized, they work if they can find work even though they could live on a guaranteed minimum income. The view precludes the existence of a significant amount of systemic abuse. It would be nice if people were really like that.

But the program isn't all that important, anyway. The Pirates are the first party that isn't united by content but by method: having a say and participating via computer.

What to Do about Extremists

Yet this lack of specificity when it comes to content also invites people who believe that they, with their dubious views, can find a home with the Pirates. Despite their right-wing extremist past, Valentin Seipt and Matthias Bahner, former members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), are still members of the Pirate Party today. A state arbitration board rejected efforts to eject Bahner from the party.

When the party's national arbitration panel decided last Monday that Bodo Thiesen could remain a member, despite his radical right-wing statements, it triggered a heated discussion among the Pirates over how best to deal with extremists. Party Chairman Sebastian Nerz said that he wanted to open the door into the party for converted right-wing extremists. His deputy, Bernd Schlömer, disagreed, saying that the party doesn't have a "rehabilitation mandate."

Berlin state chairman Hartmut Semken, who calls himself "Hase" ("Rabbit") on the Internet, wrote in a blog entry that he rejected the right-wing ideology "from the bottom of my heart." Nevertheless, Semken did compare the Pirates to the Nazis, saying that the calls to eject extremists from the party reminded him of the Nazi Party, which "had a scapegoat for everything."

Semken also drew other surprising parallels between the two groups. "It's certainly interesting that the Pirates like to emulate the campaign methods with which the Nazis captured Berlin (I believe neighborhood strolls, albeit in uniform, are Goebbels' invention, even though that isn't what he called them)."

A shitstorm on the party's mailing lists was the result. Three Berlin Pirates wrote an open letter demanding Semken's resignation. But he stuck to his guns. "I will not learn to despise people, which is why I won't even react to Nazis with contempt," said Semken. "If that means I'm not suited to represent the state organization, then we really have a problem." Semken added that he would decide whether to resign once the excitement had died down. If, at that point, a majority is still calling for his resignation, he said, "then that's exactly what I'll do."

A Honeymoon Period

The party gives the impression of not yet having found itself. It still has no benchmark for what's acceptable and what is not. It wants radical renewal, it refuses to accept boundaries and it gives its members almost no guidelines. Each Pirate is still a party unto himself, because there is no glue holding them together, and some happen to be wayward Pirates.

But people have been forgiving of the Pirates' foibles thus far. They are willing to grant a honeymoon period because they are so relieved to finally have a party that promises to fundamentally change politics.

That's also the case with Benjamin Killewald. He is 20 and from Dormagen in North Rhine-Westphalia. He's a high-school graduate and wants to study social work or history at university. He has been interested in politics for a long time. As a high-school student, he completed an internship in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament. "A whole lot of things are done in the parliament that the average person knows nothing about," says Killewald. "I thought that was a shame." Killewald plans to vote for the Pirates in the state parliamentary election on May 13. "Their concept is great," he says. "Politics has to be made more open." Killewald used to be a member of the Young Socialists, "but all they talked about were petitions to install some traffic signs."

Susanne Lohmann, a 45-year-old physician, was an active Green Party member in the western city of Bochum in the 1980s. She attended demonstrations and helped out in election campaigns. Then came the party's decision to support the deployment of German troops to war-torn Kosovo, and Lohmann decided to stop voting for the Greens. "Even for the Greens, at some point the only important thing was to stay in power, which disappointed me," she says. Now, she adds, she is curious about the Pirates and wants to vote for them. "They simply have a different way of engaging in politics."

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