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Letter from Berlin: Who Are the Pirates from Berlin?

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They are handy with computers and are interested in issues relating to the Internet. Is that all? Many Berliners have been scratching their heads about the true identity of Germany's youngest political party. But the answer is simple: They're the new Greens.

Some of the 15 Pirate Party delegates who will soon take their seats in Berlin's city-state parliament. Zoom
DPA

Some of the 15 Pirate Party delegates who will soon take their seats in Berlin's city-state parliament.

A protest party. A group of computer nerd misfits. Perhaps even a joke? Such were the portrayals of the Pirate Party in Berlin prior to Sunday's city-state election. After all, how could a single-issue party made up largely of 20-something men really be serious about politics?

That was then. Now, with 15 Pirates set to enter Berlin's regional parliament after receiving an astonishing 8.9 percent of the vote, capital city residents are taking a closer look at one of the most surprising political success stories Germany has seen in recent years. And what they have found is a group which has tapped into a political vein that Germany's more established political parties didn't even know existed.

"They have very clearly struck a nerve in this city," admitted the Green Party's lead candidate Renate Künast after the votes were counted.

Lothar Probst, a political scientist at the University of Bremen, went further. "For many young voters and first-time voters, this party embodies something fresh and adventuresome," he told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

More than Open

And, of course, largely unknown. Whereas the party was eager to open itself as much as possible during the campaign -- to the point that voters knew which candidates wore Adidas, which chose Nikes and which preferred New Balance -- there was a pronounced aversion at a Monday evening party meeting to making all of its growing pains public. "I am not going to walk around the next five years with a recorder on," said newly-minted Berlin parliamentarian Christopher Lauer.

Still, the party has been more than open about its shortcomings. Its party platform no longer focuses exclusively on issues associated with Internet freedoms and digital privacy. The party also campaigned on demands for free urban transportation, a guaranteed minimum income for all and a student-teacher ratio in public schools of 15:1.

But lead candidate Andreas Baum was quick to point out that there was plenty of work left to be done. "It is clear that there are several areas where we have gaps and that we have to develop ourselves further," Baum said on Monday. "That's hardly a surprise for a party that so far has never had a single employee."

So far, the party has most frequently been compared with the Green Party. Indeed, the Greens have long had the reputation for being the slightly rebellious newcomers on the German political scene, even if that reputation was no longer entirely deserved. Now, that mantle has been passed to the Pirates. "The Pirates gained support in milieus that had long belonged to the Greens," said political scientist Probst.

Attractive to New Voters

Voter analysis from Sunday would seem to back up that assessment. The survey group Infratest established that 17,000 former Green Party supporters switched their votes to the Pirate Party on Sunday, more than came from any other party. The SPD lost 14,000 voters to the Pirates and the far-left Left Party 13,000.

The party's largest coup, however, came from its ability to attract fully 23,000 people to the polls who had never voted before. More votes came from former East Berlin, where the party secured 10.1 percent of the vote, than from former West Berlin. Most of the party's supporters are young, well-educated men -- as are 14 of the 15 Pirates who will now take their seats in the Berlin city-state parliament.

Sunday's vote was not the first time the Pirate Party had made its appearance on ballots. Christian Engström of Sweden won a seat in the European Parliament in 2009 as a Pirate Party candidate. And in 2009 general elections in Germany, the party managed 2 percent of the votes in Berlin.

The country's established parties, though, have yet to take the Pirates seriously. The center-left Social Democrats blasted the party for lacking substance. Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats said the Pirates' result was a "classic protest" vote.

'You Are Old!'

It is the Greens, however, which have the most to fear from the Pirates. Despite the fact that many Green Party leaders have long since gone gray and many of them are approaching the age of retirement, the party has still not lost the image of rebellion it has cloaked itself with ever since Joshka Fischer took his oath of office in the state of Hesse wearing ragged, white tennis shoes.

Now, though, the Pirate Party seems poised to take over that counter-culture image. Even as political analysts say that the phenomenon of the Pirate Party likely won't travel well outside Berlin, the success of a party younger and more rebellious than itself is a bitter pill for the Greens to swallow.

"They have a young, new feel to them while us Greens have become established," said Gesine Agena, head of the Green youth wing.

"Established" is one way of putting it. The Pirates themselves have another. On Sunday night, when Künast looked into the cameras and praised her party's affinity for and understanding of the Internet, Pirate Party members erupted in loud laughter at their election night celebration in Kreuzberg.

Immediately a chant filled the room. "You are old! You are old!"

After Sunday, it would be difficult to argue.

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that Christian Engström had left the Pirate Party and joined the Greens. While Engström works closely with the Greens in the European Parliament, he is still a member of the Pirate Party. We apologize for the imprecision.

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Photo Gallery: A Victory for the Pirates
Graphic: Berlin Election Results Zoom
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Graphic: Berlin Election Results



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