The Grand Experiment: German Pirate Party Attempts to Reinvent Politics

By Sven Becker, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Peter Müller, Marcel Rosenbach and Merlind Theile

Germany's Pirate Party has gone from a tiny group of hackers to a significant force in an astoundingly short amount of time. Its growing pains are obvious to all, but the party could succeed in fundamentally changing German politics. First it must agree on what it stands for.

Photo Gallery: The Rise of the Pirates Photos
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Now she knows what it's like. Now she knows what politics feels like. It can hurt, and it can be extremely draining. On Thursday evening, Marina Weisband decided she had had enough. She cancelled a television appearance and checked herself in to Berlin's Charité Hospital feeling faint and dizzy.

By then Weisband, party manager of the Pirate Party, was already familiar with the new rigors of politics and the challenges presented by her own party. She had been in the eye of a shitstorm and had been rudely berated online, all because she had written things that others didn't like.

Last Thursday evening Weisband, 24, became acquainted with the rigors of the old system. She was a guest on a talk show hosted by Michel Friedman, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who accused the Pirates of providing a political home to "Nazis, racists and anti-Semites" -- about the worst possible insult in German politics.

The accusations stemmed from the fact that some in the Pirate Party had once been members of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), or had allowed themselves extremely controversial statements about the Third Reich. Weisband didn't seek to defend any of this. On the contrary.

But it wasn't enough for Friedman. He continued to rage after the broadcast, says Weisband. "You should be ashamed of yourself," he allegedly shouted at her. "The Pirates shouldn't even exist." After withstanding this attack, Weisband was scheduled to appear on a talk show hosted by journalist Maybrit Illner. But shortly before the program was to begin, she realized that something was wrong, that she couldn't handle it all anymore, and she had someone take her to the hospital.

Weisband had experienced how difficult it can be to come to grips with this rigid system, with all its rules and taboos.

Too Good to Be True

The Pirates' goal is to change this. They want to establish new rules and a new way of engaging in politics. But now they are running into problems. The system is fighting back, and it's thankful that the Pirates are having a problem with a few members with radical right-wing views.

The situation is such that party leaders, on the eve of their national convention this weekend in Neumünster, are unable to savor their outstanding survey numbers at the moment. Opinion polls show the Pirates would capture up to 13 percent of votes were elections held this Sunday, which would place them neck and neck with the Green Party and well ahead of the Left Party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). Almost one in three Germans can imagine voting for the Pirates. They are skimming off support from all parties. More importantly, however, they are attracting new potential voters.

It sounds almost too good to be true, a party of computer nerds and freaks, a party of political neophytes, electrifying a large share of German citizens. Avanti Dilettanti -- they wish these amateurs all the best. The Pirates give them renewed hope that politics could be better than it is.

The same hope existed once before, not too long ago. Only a year-and-a-half ago, many Germans believed that a man named Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg could reinvigorate politics. Extremely popular, the young, dashing Guttenberg had quickly become a powerful fixture in Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet and many had thought he had the stuff to become chancellor himself one day. He was as close to a star as it gets in German politics. But those hopes were dashed when it was revealed that Guttenberg had plagiarized large parts of his doctoral thesis, and he was forced to resign as minister of defense.

This says nothing about the Pirates and their prospects of success. It only says that the German people are both deeply disappointed with politics-as-usual and have a great longing for something different. Many people no longer trust conventional politicians. They are tired of the rituals, and they want to be consulted. They want to know what is happening and why, and they want to participate and have their say.

Why the Pirates Are Successful

This is precisely the Pirates' biggest attraction: transparency and participation, as well as a healthy dose of freshness and otherness. This sometimes makes the Pirates seem childishly naïve and chaotic, and yet they seek to make do without backroom backslapping and conventional political smoothness.

The hotly debated childcare subsidy issue is a perfect example of why the Pirates are successful. The idea, which would provide stay-at-home parents state money for their troubles, is a controversial one. Many say it reinforces an antiquated view of the family, others say it would provide an incentive for poor, immigrant families to keep their children at home, thus delaying their acquisition of the German language until their first years in school.

But because Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the influential sister party to Merkel's CDU -- wants it to happen, Chancellor Angela Merkel says that it has to happen. And that's that. Conservatives in parliament are expected to toe the line and vote for the legislation, even though many oppose it. This is traditional politics in its worst form: wheeling and dealing, and the expectation that the rank and file will accept a decision handed down from above. One can only hope that this system will be revamped.

The Pirates want to give it a try. In other words, it isn't just a matter of whether yet another party has acquired seats in the German parliament. Instead, it's about the bigger picture, about the question of whether politics will remain as it is or will improve.

Pirate Communication

Yet, it isn't so easy to revitalize a 63-year-old system, especially one that has also proven to be successful in many respects. It defends itself, but more than anything it absorbs challengers. Adversaries will be subsumed and changed, not the other way around. And that is precisely where we are today. Will the Pirates succeed in changing the system, or is the system changing the Pirates?

Their tools are the Internet and the computer, which they use to develop their policies. To understand the Pirates, it's important to understand how they communicate with one another.

Their system, such as it is, can be illustrated by the case of Christopher Lauer, a 27-year-old member of the legislature in the city-state of Berlin. Recently, he came up with the idea of extending the terms of party leaders from one year to two, arguing that the party needs continuity in its leadership. The proposal will be put up for a vote at the party convention this weekend.

Lauer, though, wants to know what the Pirates think about his proposal before that, and he wants a recommendation from the grassroots to take to the convention. To that end, he uses the Liquid Feedback voting software to introduce his motion. Party members who have registered are entitled to vote.

The discussion takes place simultaneously on a Pirate Pad, an online document to which everyone can contribute. Lauer also promotes his proposal on Twitter, where he currently has 14,000 followers. Marina Weisband immediately retweets his idea to her own followers, of which she has 25,000. In this way, all it takes are a few clicks before Lauer's idea reaches the majority of the party base.

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Graphic: Results of a SPIEGEL survey on the Pirate Party. Zoom
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