Photo Gallery: Are the Pirates on a Sinking Ship?

Foto: Rainer Jensen/ picture alliance / dpa

Sinking Ship Voters Growing Disillusioned with Germany's Pirate Party

As national elections approach next year, Germany's Pirate Party can't explain what its positions really are. Its representatives in state parliaments prefer to focus on technical issues and themselves, while party leaders are withdrawing from the forefront. Voters, in the meantime, are turning away from the party.

Martin Delius knows now what a thin line separates power from powerlessness. Last Friday Delius, a member of the Berlin state parliament for the Pirate Party, made his first appearance as chair of a fact-finding committee tasked with investigating the fiasco surrounding the delayed opening of Berlin's new airport. "We need to restore people's confidence in politics," Delius said, sounding very much the responsible statesman.

Unfortunately for Delius, he was not the only focus of attention that particular day. The same morning, stories about the Pirate Party's political director Johannes Ponader were once again splashed all over the German press, after a talk show appearance in which he had his feet massaged, threw his arms around the show's host and explained his polyamorous lifestyle, meaning that he engages in multiple relationships at once.

The Pirate Party was triumphant in Berlin state elections a little over a year ago, emerging as a protest movement against the establishment, promising transparency instead of backroom politics. This spring the party was polling at 13 percent. Since then, though, it seems voters have come to recognize that the Pirate Party often offers little more than a spectacle.

More recent polls show that Germany's newest political party has fallen back nearly to the "five-percent hurdle," the percentage of votes a party needs in order to take seats in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. The Pirate Party is now at risk of failing to meet that hurdle in national elections next year.

Struggling at the State Level

The Pirates' successful run at the regional level seems to have slowed to a stop as well. After electoral victories in the federal states of Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland, the party now looks to be in danger of defeat in the state of Lower Saxony, which will go to the polls in January.

For weeks, the Pirate Party has been struggling to put together its slate of candidates there, even repeating their party convention twice because of various issues that arose with the selection process. Lower Saxony's election supervisor is still investigating whether violations were committed in the process of assembling the list. The Pirate Party has dropped to 4 percent in the polls in Lower Saxony as well.

Endless debates and power struggles within the party have taken their toll, wearing down members and scaring off voters. The party is also fighting the image that, like software experts, it is only wants to modernize the political process, and not focus on substantive issues.

"What we're offering is not a program, but an operating system," Marina Weisband, Johannes Ponader's predecessor as the party's political director, confidently declared a year ago. But what could initially be taken as a "less is more" approach has since become this young political party's most serious liability. It turns out a few updates to the operating system are not enough to win over voters. Programs will need to be installed after all.

Weisband's successor Johannes Ponader, in particular, has rubbed both fellow party members and members of the public the wrong way. The fact that Ponader has, at times, lived on Germany's "Hartz IV" benefits program for the long-term unemployed -- and even asked party supporters to donate funds for a salary, since his position with the Pirate Party is a voluntary one -- generated bad press and frustration among party leaders.

Other top Pirates have asked Ponader to make fewer media appearances, so as not to further damage the party's reputation, but he simply ignored their requests. Last week, the conflict escalated further. "I would advise Johannes Ponader to try holding a job," party leader Bernd Schlömer complained to SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Hierarchy Frowned Upon

It's still unclear who will be the party's leading candidate in the Bundestag election. Some of the party's most likeable figures, including Weisband, have stepped back, worn out by the endless quarrels, and the party's current leading figures are visibly struggling to run a party in which hierarchies are frowned upon.

Take the example of Schlömer. Elected as the party's new boss six months ago, he still hasn't settled into his role. "Some people say I should be more forceful, and others say I should be more reserved," he says.

Other party leaders share his uncertainty. Sebastian Nerz, Schlömer's predecessor and currently second in command, has announced that he will not be running for office again. "Our biggest problem is that, aside from personal scandals, we can't seem to manage to communicate anything," he says.

Julia Schramm, another prominent party member in Berlin, likewise plans not to participate in the next election. Schramm angered many members of her party when her publisher took action against people downloading pirated copies of a book she had written -- which goes against the Pirate Party's anti-copyright stance.

A Lack of Team Spirit

The party hasn't managed to find a true sense of team spirit -- its leaders' varying lifestyles and beliefs are simply too different. Ponader, for one, advocates free love and a state-issued basic income for all, with no strings attached. Before beginning his political career with the Pirates, Ponader spent months as part of a group of Occupy activists who took over the "Bundespressestrand," a former beach bar near Berlin's government quarter. Schlömer, on the other hand, is a husband and father, works as a civil servant at the Defense Ministry, and aligns himself with social liberalism.

Then there's deputy party chair Markus Barenhoff, who was caught by police last week in possession of two grams of marijuana. Matthias Schrade, another leading Pirate Party member and a financial analyst by profession, sounded a little alienated in his response on Twitter: "Is being caught smoking pot supposed to be a political achievement?!"

The political competition is similarly confused. Especially in the four German states where the Pirates hold seats in the state parliaments, these newcomers' first steps into the political arena have drawn both wonder and scorn from other parties.

Last Wednesday, the Pirate Party's representatives in the Saarland state parliament were having lunch in the parliament's restaurant, just across the table from Saarland Governor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Like Being at School

Taking stock of the situation, Pirate Party representative Jasmin Maurer, 23, says: "It's like a mini university course. I learn something new every day." Just six months ago, she was a job trainee who had broken off her studies before completing a law degree. Now she's one of the Pirates' four representatives in Saarland's parliament, a member of the education committee, and is expected to have an opinion on everything. "And that's impossible," Maurer says.

Even before their Berlin colleagues started something similar on the subject of the Berlin airport, Saarland's Pirates established a fact-finding committee to investigate why the construction of a new museum had ended up over budget.

The party promised full transparency, but didn't get far. Their attempt to publish documents on their party's parliamentary group website failed. In fact, the state parliament's administration saw to it that they weren't even allowed to put records from public hearings online. "Our hands are tied," laments party member Michael Neyses. "But if we want to succeed here, we have to play the game to a certain degree."

Getting Rid of Outdated Traditions

Saarland's Pirates have so far introduced four bills, three of which concern their favorite topic, civic participation. For example, they want student representatives at schools to be elected directly by the student body.

But in practice, the only real changes the Pirates have achieved involve the processes within parliament. They freed their members from obligatory membership in a party-aligned parliamentary group, introduced an anonymous application process for party advisors -- and the restaurant now serves the soft drink Orangina at the Pirates' request.

In this sense, Saarland's Pirates have much in common with their colleagues in other state parliaments, who have also concerned themselves largely with process rather than content. In Berlin's parliament, for example, the Pirates were the first to introduce live streaming of their parliamentary group's sessions.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, the party's parliamentary group took issue with the fact that Internet giant Google was in charge of configuring the spam filter for parliamentarians' email. And in Schleswig-Holstein, they're fighting to be allowed to use laptops in the plenary chamber.

Sometimes the Pirates come across more like corporate consultants brought in to help a company get rid of outdated traditions.

The Party Faces a Lack of Content

The party's penchant for technical restructuring may have served in the beginning to obscure its substantive shortcomings, but it's since become clear that the Pirate Party lacks an overarching system of beliefs that would unify its individual political positions. Voters can't tell what the party stands for, and even the party's members don't seem entirely sure.

This lack of content is already having an effect in the state parliaments where the party is represented. The newcomers are gaining a reputation as a party of self-promoters, whose members most often garner big headlines for bizarre behavior -- for example, one representative in North Rhine-Westphalia uses Twitter to describe her one-night stands and broken condoms. Whether party members do make changes that affect political content depends on individual skill, regardless of whether the matter is really a Pirate Party concern or not.

The election in Schleswig-Holstein in May swept Pirate Party members into the state parliament who seem more like independent candidates than members of the same party, each pursuing an individual agenda. One, who also works as a customs official, tends to represent the interests of customs officials, while Angelika Beer, former national party chair for the Green Party, focuses on environmental policies just like in the old days.

One party member with a particularly maverick approach is Patrick Breyer, the Pirates' parliamentary group leader in Schleswig-Holstein. Breyer, who has a Ph.D. in law, battles against government surveillance of any kind, from data storage to drones. He opposes Germany's strict address registration requirements and cell phone tracking. Not even fellow party members know precisely where Breyer lives, and he regularly switches out his cell phone's prepaid SIM card.

Breyer even declined to provide the parliament's administration with his current address and date and place of birth, which meant he didn't receive his pay for months. Eventually an agreement was reached -- Breyer only had to provide his address -- and the payments went through.

'Totalitarian Characteristics'

The Pirates' behavior annoys other parties even as a matter of principle. "Instead of resolutions reached by the parliamentary group as a whole, each member pursues his or her own policies," complains Ralf Stegner, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) parliamentary group in Schleswig-Holstein.

He also sees the Pirates' concept of transparency as having "some totalitarian characteristics." For example, the party's desire to make sessions of the parliament's Council of Elders completely public is "absolutely divorced from reality, pure dogmatism," Stegner says.

He sees this general suspicion of any form of confidentiality as tying in with "anti-parliamentary reflexes among the general public," and adds that the Pirate Party has in fact brought some of the opposition closer to the ruling government, if only out of a need to keep things from becoming too much of a mess. It is another way in which the Pirate Party has been responsible for creating the disenchantment among voters.

When the German Pirate Party was founded in 2006, the battle for civil liberties and a less regulated Internet were at the forefront. Computer nerds saw their virtual world under threat from Internet censorship and data storage, and the party successfully took up this subject that other political parties were largely ignoring.

Not until much later did the Pirate Party deliberately present itself in election campaigns as an anti-establishment party, with demands for civic participation and transparency taking a major role. Grassroots democracy, for example, only became an official part of the party's platform in May 2010.

That change did briefly win over many protest voters, but in practice the transformation has proven difficult. For example, the Berlin Pirates are the only ones to regularly use voting software called LiquidFeedback to assess party members' opinions, while their colleagues in Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland have not introduced the software at all.

'We Work Best Under Pressure'

In North Rhine-Westphalia, meanwhile, the Pirate Party's parliamentarians have used the software to gather general opinions on just two issues so far. A poll of Pirate Party voters there concerning a proposed law to regulate circumcision showed 17 in favor of fighting the proposed law, two in abstention and one against -- 20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants. It's a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.

So once again, it's up to the party's members. The plan is to finally fill in the gaps in the party platform at the Pirate Party's national convention in November. Some members also want to force a new election for party leaders in January, even though that election isn't supposed to take place for months.

Current party boss Schlömer is still debating whether he should run for the position again. The party needs a better infrastructure, he says, such as paid office employees. But it doesn't have the money. As a result, party leaders are left with hope as their main currency. "We work best under pressure," says Matthias Schrader. "If there's one thing we can do well, it's an election campaign."

At the moment, though, even the party's grassroots base, usually so dedicated, seems to have burned out. A request from the party's national leaders for members to submit ideas to a working group on the election campaign produced few suggestions from the party's ranks -- and not even half of the party's regional-level groups participated.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.
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