Political Neophytes Do the Berlin Pirates Have a Nationwide Future?

Part 2: Distancing Themselves from the Established Parties

Indeed, the Pirates are deliberately setting themselves apart from the old parties. Although Germany's well-established political parties have frantically convened "Web councils" and "Internet working groups," all decisions are still made by a generation that believes that Internet politics consists of creating a Facebook page and emailing a memo announcing the next town-hall meeting.

Be that as it may, the positions adopted by the Pirates can hardly explain their success. During the Berlin election campaign, they called for an unconditional basic income guarantee for all citizens. They also want to nationalize the city's commuter rail system and make Berlin's rapid transit system free of charge. These are positions that could be described as either wacky or left-wing, depending on how sympathetically one views the Pirates. In any case, these platform tenets are not based on sound calculations.

Furthermore, the Pirates endorse the establishment of "Cannabis Social Clubs," where pot smokers can get pure weed. The party's nationwide political platform includes demands such as: "The requirement for gender-specific first names is to be abolished."

Padding for Core Issues

But most of this is just padding for a platform that hardly any voters have taken the time to read anyway. The Pirates enthusiastically put forward their positions primarily on two core issues: They reject every form of Internet censorship and speak out against data retention, in other words the storage of communication data by the government for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes.

These areas of focus have much to do with the party's brief history. It is the story of a generation that grew up with the Internet and resists all attempts by political parties and corporations to regulate its digital world.

While the origins of Germany's green movement date back to anti-nuclear demonstrations in places like Wackersdorf and Gorleben, the Pirate movement has its roots in Sweden. This is where the original "Piratpartiet" was founded in early 2006 in reaction to massive legal action against the owners of thepiratebay.org, a popular file-sharing site for films, music, books and other media content on the Web. Many of these files are pirated copies of Hollywood movies and pop albums.

The harsh sentences handed down to the defendants sparked a wave of solidarity. The head of "The Pirate Bay," Rickard Falkvinge, spoke of a "declaration of war by the establishment and politicians against an entire generation." Like all movements, the pirates now had their founding myth, and Falkvinge was their martyr. The Swede made a special trip to the German capital to take part in the Berlin Pirates' victory celebration. When the results were confirmed, he had tears in his eyes.

In the fall of 2009, three years after it was officially founded, the German chapter of the Pirate Party received a major boost from German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Her proposal "to block" child pornography websites and blend in "stop signs" politicized the German Internet community like no other issue. This earned her the nickname "Zensursula" (a portmanteau of the German word for censorship, Zensur, and her first name), and the Pirates suddenly found themselves on the political map. During the German general election in 2009, they received nearly 848,000 votes nationwide, or 2 percent. It was the first chapter in a political success story that has celebrated its latest victory in Berlin.

Core or Complete?

Now, the Pirates want to conquer all of Germany, but first they have to solve a series of structural problems. The national Pirate Party has done little but remain mired in internal squabbles over the past two years.

Within Germany's Green Party, there was a famous conflict between the so-called "Realos" (pragmatists) and the "Fundis" (fundamentalists). The equivalent within the Pirates is an ongoing struggle between the "Kernis" (named for the German word for "core") and the "Vollis" (from the word for "complete"). The Kernis believe that a core program with Internet-related issues is enough, while the Vollis want a complete program that covers all important political issues. In some state chapters, proponents of grassroots democracy have fought bitterly with those in favor of party structures. The Pirates devote their party conferences to wrangling over personnel issues. Their current leader, Sebastian Nerz, a former CDU man, is already the fourth party chairman.

There is still no strategy for how the Pirates can capitalize on their Berlin election success in the next national election. The party executive first intends to discuss the matter during the coming weeks. However, the Pirates have already drawn one conclusion: Their street election campaign, says Nerz, with its many posters and information stands, was crucial to the electoral success in Berlin. "We have to present ourselves as a party to a far greater extent offline," he adds.

That could prove to be difficult, though, since the party currently has fewer than 13,000 members. This means that the Pirates don't have sufficient staff to run election campaigns in large German states. They are still primarily rooted in the cities. Another problem is that they are in need of more female pirates. There is only one woman among the 15 representatives in the Berlin state parliament, and only a small minority of the party members are women. Two years ago, a Berlin woman named Leena Simon called for a separate "female pirate" network to counteract the paternalism of male party colleagues. Her local state chapter gave Simon a warning for behavior that was detrimental to the party.

What's more, they now have to prove that they can live up to the hopes that have been placed in them. The first test will be whether, in addition to successfully campaigning for election, the 15 deputies in Berlin can also engage in politics.

'You Have to Know a Lot of Things'

Last Thursday, Fabio Reinhardt became one of the first newly elected Pirates to explore the Berlin House of Representatives, home to the city-state's parliament. He somewhat hesitantly ordered a meat-and-tomato dish with French fries in the cafeteria, got to know the cashier ("Did you get your ID yet, young man?"), and set out in search of the former FDP rooms that will now be used by the Pirates (the business-friendly FDP no longer have seats in the parliament, having failed to reach the 5 percent hurdle for representation).

Reinhardt roamed through the long corridors, past paintings of Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl and Richard von Weizsäcker, a former West Berlin mayor and German president. The building is enormous, and Reinhardt seemed lost. He was just about to give up when an adviser to the parliament's budget committee took him under her wing. This determined woman immediately drew him into her office. She handed him a copy of the budget for the coming years -- a grand tome with hundreds of pages.

"You have to know a lot of things," said the woman, "and people won't explain everything to you here." Reinhardt gazed dubiously at the pile of paper. It didn't look as if he felt like taking the plunge.

"But we don't need 15 budget experts," he protested.

"Yes, you do," replied the woman. Reinhardt seemed more hesitant than ever. At that moment, he probably realized that the real business of politics was about to begin.


Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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