Reality Check: State Election a Massive Setback for Pirates

By in Hanover

Germany's Pirate Party suffered its first setback at the ballot box on Sunday in Lower Saxony since its breakthrough in national politics in 2011. Its paltry 2.1 percent showing at the polls could kill its effort to gain seats in the federal parliament.

Little to celebrate: Members of the Pirate Party view video screens as the results of an important state election are tallied. The party scored an abysmal 2.1 percent of votes. Zoom
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Little to celebrate: Members of the Pirate Party view video screens as the results of an important state election are tallied. The party scored an abysmal 2.1 percent of votes.

In a reflection of its declining fortunes across much of the country, Germany's once high-flying Pirate Party failed to enter parliament in a pivotal state election in Lower Saxony on Sunday.

"I am totally flabbergasted, I can't explain it," said the party's leading candidate, Meinhart Ramaswamy. He took a sip of beer at what was intended to be an election night party, before adding: "I didn't think this would be possible."

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The Pirate Party, which rose to prominence in Germany over the past year and a half with its message of Internet freedom, political transparency and other issues relevant to the digital age, has been plunging in the polls recently after gaining seats in the legislatures of four German states. On Sunday, its winning streak ended with a stinging electoral defeat.

In Berlin, it had garnered 8.9 percent of the votes in fall 2011, followed by state elections in Saarland (7.4 percent), Schleswig-Holstein (8.2 percent) and North Rhine-Westphalia (7.8 percent). It scored just 2.1 percent in Lower Saxony.

For politicians and volunteers helping on election night, it was a bitter blow that few had seen coming. Just before the first exit polls were released at 6 p.m., state party chief Ramaswamy had said: "I assume that I will soon be a member of parliament."

A Party that Has Become Self-Obsessed

The party's showing in Lower Saxony doesn't really come as a surprise. The Pirates have seen a precipitous plunge in opinion polls since summer, and Sunday's vote was the first reflection of that loss of popularity at the ballot box. During the spring, the party still enjoyed double-digit popularity in national polls, but it has been under the 5-percent mark required for entering parliament at the national level since the autumn. The party's aim of entering the federal parliament, the Bundestag, in the next national election in September appears to be threatened. The loss in Lower Saxony will make that goal even harder to meet.

In Lower Saxony, Pirate Party leaders on Sunday blamed the neck and neck running between the two possible coalition governments -- that of the incumbent conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the business-friendly FDP and its challengers, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens -- for their poor showing. But the party's state chairman, Johannes Ponader, also conceded the party hadn't been making a very good impression at the national level.

For the past six months, the Pirate Party has known only one direction: down. The party has crashed in the polls, there has been infighting among party leaders and it has been internally divided on its core issues. The message to voters has been off-putting -- namely that the Pirates revolve around themselves. Amidst all this navel-gazing, the party appears to have forgotten its image -- and, in Lower Saxony, the party failed to convince voters why they should cast their ballots behind it.

A Setback a the Right Time?

National party boss Bernd Schlömer appears to have recognized this, too. "We've got to stop being preoccupied with ourselves," he said Sunday in the Lower Saxony state capital Hanover. "We very clearly haven't done enough to show what the Pirates stand for and why there won't be any change in politics without the Pirates." Schlömer would like to see the party abandon its "issues instead of faces" motto, which focuses on platforms rather than politicians and instead put the party's best and brightest in the spotlight. The question is whether the party base -- and voters -- will remain patient enough to go along with him.

Some observers are asking if the Pirate Party's great adventure -- its broadside attack on the political establishment as a protest movement -- has run out of steam. But it hasn't necessarily, because even if the other parties have learned from the Pirates, nobody understands the Internet as well as they do. And there are still plenty of voters who are disappointed with the work of the established parties.

Indeed, there are still large groups of voters the party has the potential to attract. But with less than a year to go until federal elections, time may be too short for the Pirates to regain the momentum they need to win Bundestag seats. That may explain why one Pirate in Hanover had this to offer: "This hammering comes at the right time." In order to turn things around, the Pirates will need to show something that's been missing since their 2011 breakthrough: a more self-critical view and a willingness to learn from its mistakes.

The lesson the party should take from this dismal Sunday in Lower Saxony ought to be that setbacks, even devastating ones, are part of political life. What is important is if a party can learn from them.

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Graphic: Lower Saxony Election Results Zoom
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Graphic: Lower Saxony Election Results


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