The Grand Experiment German Pirate Party Attempts to Reinvent Politics


By , , , and Merlind Theile

Part 5: The Establishment's View

For the majority of voters, the Pirates are "a projection surface," says political scientist Stefan Klecha. "Two thirds vote for the Pirates out of dissatisfaction with the other parties, and only a third because of their program. Their voter profile is actually typical of that of a populist right-wing party in Europe: mostly young men." The key difference, he adds, is the higher level of education.

In the state parliamentary elections in Berlin and the southwestern state of Saarland, almost half of Pirate voters cited social justice as the issue most important to them. The problem is that only 13 percent of Pirate Party members feel the same way, according to Klecha's research. This, he adds, creates great potential for voter disappointment. But this isn't a new phenomenon in politics. Other parties disappoint their voters, too.

Germany's established parties are now in the process of adjusting to the new competition. "Exclamation point, smiley-face, done," says Peter Altmaier, looking satisfied as he puts down his Blackberry. Altmaier, the parliamentary leader for the CDU and the CSU in the German parliament, the Bundestag, has just sent a new Tweet, ending it with an emoticon. He has just injected some new fuel into the debate he has been having for the last few hours with Volker Beck, his Green Party counterpart.

Partly the discussion revolves around the Pirate Party and the question of who benefits from it. Beck accuses Altmaier of welcoming the rise of the Pirates because it boosts Merkel's re-election prospects by splitting the left-wing vote. Altmaier shoots back, saying that the chancellor did just fine in the last two elections without help from the Pirates. It seems so typical. Big things are happening, and yet traditional politicians are only interested in discussing the power issue.

'Harbingers of Spring'

Yet such questions are important. In addition to former non-voters, the Pirates' supporters come primarily from the Greens, the SPD and the Left Party. The stronger the new party becomes, the less likely an SPD-Green majority in next year's general elections becomes.

Altmaier, a close confidant of the chancellor, makes such calculations as well, but he goes beyond the typical response of the career politician. He sees the Pirates as a reaction to social upheaval, just as the Greens were a consequence of the environmental movement and the Left Party derived its strength from protests against the social policies of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Now there is a new transparency at stake, and the need to participate in politics. "The Pirates are the harbingers of spring of this youth movement," says Altmaier. "We have to provide new opportunities for political participation to people in the middle class who are interested in politics."

The system will change, but only a little at first. The party leadership now tolerates CNetz, a discussion forum in which participants can chat without having any impact whatsoever. The system is strong and enduring. Every chancellor in the last 63 years has been a member of either the CDU or the SPD. In that time, two new parties, the Greens and the Left Party, have established themselves in the Bundestag. They come from completely different cultures than the CDU/CSU, the SPD and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). But instead of changing the system, they were changed by the system. They became classic parties.

The system is such that it rewards celebrity, vagueness and agreements reached behind closed doors. If the masses want to participate, things will become slow and cumbersome. But is it right to cite this as a reason to keep the masses out?

'Growing Pains'

The Pirate Party state chairman in North Rhine-Westphalia is sitting in the conference room at Essen campaign headquarters, talking to top candidate Joachim Paul, 54, a media educator, and professional firefighter Lukas Lamla, 28, who is organizing the election campaign.

The hype, says Marsching, also creates problems. "We're experiencing growing pains. We expect 2,800 people to attend our national convention in late April. This is madness. Our original idea, that everyone should have a say, no longer works under these conditions. We have to abandon this form of grassroots democracy."

Lamla fidgets restlessly in his chair. "But we're just developing the concept of decentralized party conventions. Four simultaneous conventions, in different locations, digitally connected." "Forget it," says Marsching, "there are technical problems with that. We don't have a grassroots democracy!"

Lamla looks perturbed. "Don't we first have to define what exactly grassroots democracy means for us?" he asks. Paul, the top candidate, interjects: "We have a low threshold for access to politics." "Yes, you're right," says Marsching. "But the notion that the base has to be asked about every issue is bullshit! That doesn't work in politics."

Conflict is in the air. "But of course we always have to consult the base," says Lamla. "With your position on the board, you've also been given an advance helping of trust." Marsching looks sullen. "I was voted into office to keep my face in front of the cameras. I'm not just the stupid little administrative idiot here."

A Great Responsibility

Paul nods. As a top candidate, he's familiar with the problem. "I had to give a written interview yesterday, and I had a deadline. Clearly I couldn't coordinate every response with the base, even though there were some really difficult questions."

No one has a reason to rejoice if the Pirates have trouble upholding their standards in political reality. There is a lot more at stake than content. The political system needs renewal, because it makes too many citizens apathetic or alienates them, losing legitimacy as a result. The Internet offers a chance for new forms of participation and transparency, and thus for a new relationship with politics.

The Pirates haven't found the right measure and style yet, and they are still a long way from having a convincing platform. But they do arouse new interest in politics and embody the hope of better politics. This is worth a great deal. But it also translates into a great responsibility not to dash the hopes of the electorate once again.

Marina Weisband, however, won't be part of it anymore. The best-known woman in the Pirate Party decided to resign long before her breakdown on Thursday evening, from which she has fully recovered.

It was just too much for her. She was catapulted out of the normal life of a student and into the political system, and forced to deal with the special rigors of the Pirate Party to boot. Now that she is getting out, she plans to visit her family in Ukraine and then work on her degree dissertation. On Tuesday, she announced via Twitter that she has also become engaged. With her newfound distance from the party, she hopes to figure out which is stronger: the system or the party.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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