The World From Berlin: 'The Pirate Party Is Losing its Bond with Voters'

The Pirate Party's surprising triumph in the Berlin election this autumn left many asking what the political newcomers stand for. More was revealed at the party's conference this weekend, but German commentators on Monday still disagree on whether they will be a long-term fixture or a one-trick pony.

A toy on display at the Pirate Party's conference, the first since its surprise success this autumn. Zoom
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A toy on display at the Pirate Party's conference, the first since its surprise success this autumn.

The German Pirate Party views history in terms of 'before' and 'after.' Their pivotal moment came on Sept. 18, 2011, when the party entered the Berlin parliament after cornering nine percent of the vote.

Nothing has been the same for the party since then. These days the party's leaders are profiled in the national press, there's a flood of new members and large donations are coming in. This weekend at the party's first congress since their unexpected success, more than 1,200 pirate members gathered in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, to expand on the party's political priorities.

As the event began, Sebastian Nerz, the Pirate Party's national chairman, warned they would face tough decisions. "We have left behind an eventful and tough period, and we face an even more difficult one," he said.

Online Bickering

Nerz said the Pirate Party was damaging its own reputation by lauching internal political attacks via Twitter. "Insults in 140 characters are not transparency. You can't resolve disputes over Twitter or Facebook, you only escalate them," Nerz said. The high-profile in-fighting is just one problem to beset the party since their Berlin success. Their reputation has also been stained by revelations that two regional party figures previously belonged to the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).

Founded in 2006 on a civil liberties platform that focused on Internet freedoms, the Pirate Party has also been accused of lacking a clear stance on economic and foreign policy.

Instead of addressing these issues, during the conference members opted to include an unconditional basic income in their party program, with two-thirds of the attendees voting in favor of the measure. They also agreed that drugs should be legalised and there should be a clear division between church and state.

Growing Pains

Turnout at the conference was more than twice that of their last such event, and participants were encouraged to take to the microphone and express their views. In a somewhat raucous atmosphere, speeches were interrupted by loud boos and cheers, while some in the crowd used oversized icons on their laptop screens to signal their disapproval.

Even as they grow and change, surveys suggest that the Pirate Party has around 7 percent support in Germany. If it maintains more than five percent of national support in the general election in 2013 it will be able to enter the German federal parliament.

Newspaper editorialists on Monday reviewed the coming of age of Germany's unconventional political newcomer and tried to pin down their slippery political identity.

The Berliner Zeitung writes:

"It looks like the pirates have swung in a left-liberal direction. They voiced mockery and scorn for the business-friendly Free Democrats (junior coalition partner to Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats). At the beginning of their history there was a clear section of the party which propagated unfettered individualism and spared little thought for society's general well being. Such ideas have now been left behind. If the pirates continue in this vein they have a future."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The party conference showed that it is hard to fit the pirates into the established political spectrum. There is a two-thirds majority for a (vaguely described) unconditional income for all -- which sounds like a shift to the left. And then, at the same party conference, the pirates decided not to cap managers' pay. That hardly looks like a shift to the left."

"The party's evolution from an Internet party to a fully-fledged party is not following any logical course. The pirates do not have a common view of the world and they are loosely linked to the terms freedom and technology. Anything which encourages this freedom is seen as good, while anything which hinders it is bad. In addition to this wide-ranging use of the term 'freedom,' they have now defined a couple of realpolitik themes. Nothing else."

"This ideological ambiguity makes the party dangerous for established parties …The party continues to profit from disappointment with establishment and their image as rebels. But their political maturity is yet to come: it will happen when they have an ideological identity."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It may be disconcerting to watch how this pale ghost from the world of the Internet takes its first steps into the real world and adopts a culture of endless grassroots democracy debate, acting as if the euro crisis wasn't happening."

"Many think that in difficult times like these, it is not appropriate to deal with political hobby horses like legalizing drugs, unconditional basic income or free public transport for all. We just have to hope that the pirates' wish for more transparency in political processes is broad enough to ensure them enough popularity in the future."

The left-leaning Tageszeitung writes:

"It comes as no surprise that many pirates, including those in the party leadership, see the group more as a political movement than a classical party. It is precisely the emphasis on the party's grassroots practices which allows new ideas to spontaneously gain widespread support: Ideas which popped up in a party member's head two days ago now form part of its political program."

"But one problem revealed itself at the conference. Classical leaders felt compelled to take the microphone after every other motion. With regards to grassroots democracy the pirates have some catching up to do. In order to get the wide range of themes needed for the next national election, the party will have to learn to integrate the floods of new pirates and encourage them to contribute. They need to ensure that grassroots democracy doesn't create a situation where their leaders have much power."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"What does this party stand for? Freedom, transparency and a digital revolution -- many people gather behind buzz words like these. But, sooner or later, voters want to know what position the pirates take in everyday issues like the job market, economy and social policy."

"Until now, party leaders have said their internal opinion building process is still underway, declining to give firm answers. But this doesn't work anymore. At the Offenbach party conference, 1,300 pirates tried to find solutions for some problems. That turned out to be horrendously complicated."

"On the issue of an unconditional basic income, one of the party's favorite notions, the arguments became so fierce that the speakers were almost shouted off the stage. At the end of the vote, those in favor cheered, while those against left the hall in disappointment. 'Party Conference 2011. A party does away with itself,' someone commented on Twitter after the vote."

"It hasn't gone that far yet. But in the difficult transition to everyday politics, the pirates are on their way towards losing their fledgling bond with their voters. The process of demystification is underway."

Jess Smee

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