The Politics of Shitstorms: Is the Pirate Party Its Own Worst Enemy?

Germany's political establishment doesn't know how to react to the Pirate Party, which now has seats in two state parliaments and owns the debate on Internet issues. But although the party's radical experiments in transparency and participation may have caught its rivals off guard, its no-holds-barred debating culture can also backfire. By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: Pirates Ahoy! Photos
DPA

When German political parties invite their leaders to retreats, they like to use proven formulas. On the evening before the event, the top officials arrive in their dark limousines at a luxury hotel in the countryside, where they attend a festive dinner followed by fireside chats in small groups.

The next morning, they meet for discussions behind closed doors. The view of the beautiful rural surroundings is meant to take the politicians' minds off their hectic lives in Berlin and allow them to focus on the important things. After the retreat, the leadership announces its new strategy to the party base.

But it can also be done differently. A couple of weeks ago, the national and state executive committees of the Pirate Party, which campaigns on a platform of political transparency and Internet freedom, met at a youth hostel in the central German city of Kassel. The officials slept in four-bed rooms with bunk beds, which makes sense, given that the party advocates a culture of sharing, at least when it comes to data. Their debates were broadcast via the Internet using webcams, so that party members would not feel left out when their leaders discussed upcoming election campaigns.

Aleks Lessmann, the managing director of the Bavarian wing of the Pirate Party, was happy to explain some terminology -- while sitting outside on a table tennis table in the sun. Phrases like "executive meeting" are taboo for his people, because they make them think of hierarchies and backroom meetings. Continuing with the pirate metaphor, "captains' meeting" isn't bad, Lessmann said, but perhaps it would be even better to use a term like "small harbor." In the end, the group agreed to name their weekends at the youth hostel the "Marina Kassel" ("Kassel marina").

For Lessmann, 44, transparency, freedom and cloud intelligence are the issues of the 21st century. "The other parties simply don't understand this," says Lessmann, a project manager by profession. "We only became politicians out of self-defense."

A New Force in German Politics

Lessmann's Pirates stand a good chance of thoroughly upending the German party system in the next few months, just as the Greens did in the 1980s. Since the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party minority government in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia collapsed two weeks ago, the party has been practically overrun by candidates.

Many of them are new to politics, with some 200 crowding onto a list of candidates for the May 13 state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. It took the party a whole weekend to elect 42 final candidates who will now run for parliament. The state is Germany's most populous, and hence the elections there also have implications on the national level. The Pirates also believe that their chances are good in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which will also hold a state election on May 6.

The Pirates will have been encouraged by their sensational result in Sunday's election in the tiny western German state of Saarland, where they built a functioning campaign team out of nothing within the space of just a few weeks. The party got 7.4 percent of the vote, meaning it will now be represented in a second state assembly. It also has seats in the assembly in the city-state of Berlin, where it stunned the German political establishment by winning almost 9 percent of the vote in last September's state election.

Never in Germany's postwar history has a political party established itself as quickly as the Pirates. State-level organizations in all of Germany's 16 federal states have been in place for some time, and new local organizations are taking shape in many places, such as Altötting in Bavaria, Bautzen in the eastern state of Saxony and Ulm in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

The party is currently polling around 6 percent in nationwide surveys -- putting it ahead of the beleaguered business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), Angela Merkel's junior partner in her coalition government.

Abandoning the Usual Rituals

The dramatic development apparently hasn't gone unnoticed at the very top. "Parts of the Internet community are supplementing parliamentary democracy with their commitment but also with their protests," newly elected German President Joachim Gauck said in his inaugural speech.

The Pirates' success forces the established parties to confront challenges. Until now, they were accustomed to thinking in terms of political blocs. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the FDP were right of center, while the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green Party and the Left Party were to the left. But where do the Pirates stand? In the Berlin parliament, they sometimes vote with the CDU and sometimes with the Left Party.

This new lack of clarity is confounding leaders in the establishment. The Pirates are a party that makes do without well-known faces. Its leadership is constantly shifting. Hardly has an executive committee become halfway established before it changes again. Some people cannot deal with the constant Twitter attacks from within their own ranks or with the constant discussions about hierarchies, compromises and other supposed failings of offline politics.

After all, one of the goals of the Pirate Party is to distance itself from the usual political rituals. While conventional politicians usually do little more than simulate participation through dialogue with citizens, the Pirates promise more around-the-clock participation in the political decision-making process.

Digital channels like Twitter, or the Liquid Feedback voting software which is closely associated with the Pirate Party, provide the party with a high potential for mobilizing people. This makes it so attractive for like-minded people -- and so unpredictable for the established parties.

Shaking Up the Agenda

Sometimes the Pirates and their allies manage to place issues that were practically unknown, or at least of little interest to the Berlin establishment, onto the national political agenda practically overnight.

One of those issues is the dispute over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which brought tens of thousands of web activists into the streets recently. And last week the issue of data retention was back on the agenda. Data retention, which allows telecommunications data to be stored by the state and used for law-enforcement purposes, has been a controversial issue in Germany in recent years. Politicians in Merkel's coalition government have been kicking the can down the road on the issue for years.

In both cases, waves of protests washed across the Internet, while the coalition government and the opposition could do little in response. Such so-called "shitstorms" (the English word has quickly become established in German) intimidate politicians who are not particularly Twitter-savvy. Many politicians are now playing safe and avoiding Internet-related issues altogether, because they know they cannot generate enough support within the web community.

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather," reads "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which the Pirates like to quote. They see the Internet as a kind of Wild West where governments and corporations have no place.

The fight against software patents and Internet censorship unites the Pirates, who are determined to prevent established political and commercial interests from being transferred to the digital sphere. They fear a nanny state on the Internet that observes and records their every move.

Utopian Promises

On Sept. 10, 2006, only a few months after an EU guideline on data retention was passed, net activists met in a Berlin "hacker space" on the banks of the Spree River and founded the German branch of the Pirate Party. "We simply had the feeling that it was the best way to draw attention to our concerns," says Jens Seipenbusch, one of the party leaders from 2006 to 2011.

Unnoticed by the establishment, an entire generation of supposedly apolitical Internet citizens was mobilized. The anxiety over the seemingly unlimited thirst for data on the part of government agencies and corporations helps to shape the movement's self-image -- just as the fear of environmental destruction once united the Greens.

Other issues were added to the Pirates' platform, some of which seem utopian. For instance, the Pirates want to introduce an unconditional basic income for every citizen as well as free public transport. They also want to eliminate restrictions on migrant workers from developing countries. Some party members also feel that patents are outdated.

This position is also based on the pet idea of the web community: free access to information, films and music on the Internet, unobstructed by supposedly outdated copyright laws. The Pirates want to transfer this free access into the offline world. The party derives its strength "from the need for intellectual and creative freedom, freedom of opinion and giving the young generation a voice in government and society," says Pavel Mayer, a member of the Berlin Pirate Party.

Populist demands are the downside of the grassroots-democracy approach within the party, in which the Pirates, through their voting software, can submit new requests on a daily basis. On Liquid Feedback, one member is currently seriously proposing that all euro-zone countries reintroduce their old currencies, but without abolishing the euro.

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