Photo Gallery: The Rise of the Pirates

Foto: dapd

The Grand Experiment German Pirate Party Attempts to Reinvent Politics

Germany's Pirate Party has gone from a tiny group of hackers to a significant force in an astoundingly short amount of time. Its growing pains are obvious to all, but the party could succeed in fundamentally changing German politics. First it must agree on what it stands for.

Now she knows what it's like. Now she knows what politics feels like. It can hurt, and it can be extremely draining. On Thursday evening, Marina Weisband decided she had had enough. She cancelled a television appearance and checked herself in to Berlin's Charité Hospital feeling faint and dizzy.

By then Weisband, party manager of the Pirate Party, was already familiar with the new rigors of politics and the challenges presented by her own party. She had been in the eye of a shitstorm and had been rudely berated online, all because she had written things that others didn't like.

Last Thursday evening Weisband, 24, became acquainted with the rigors of the old system. She was a guest on a talk show hosted by Michel Friedman, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who accused the Pirates of providing a political home to "Nazis, racists and anti-Semites" -- about the worst possible insult in German politics.

The accusations stemmed from the fact that some in the Pirate Party had once been members of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), or had allowed themselves extremely controversial statements about the Third Reich. Weisband didn't seek to defend any of this. On the contrary.

But it wasn't enough for Friedman. He continued to rage after the broadcast, says Weisband. "You should be ashamed of yourself," he allegedly shouted at her. "The Pirates shouldn't even exist." After withstanding this attack, Weisband was scheduled to appear on a talk show hosted by journalist Maybrit Illner. But shortly before the program was to begin, she realized that something was wrong, that she couldn't handle it all anymore, and she had someone take her to the hospital.

Weisband had experienced how difficult it can be to come to grips with this rigid system, with all its rules and taboos.

Too Good to Be True

The Pirates' goal is to change this. They want to establish new rules and a new way of engaging in politics. But now they are running into problems . The system is fighting back, and it's thankful that the Pirates are having a problem with a few members with radical right-wing views.

The situation is such that party leaders, on the eve of their national convention this weekend in Neumünster, are unable to savor their outstanding survey numbers at the moment. Opinion polls show the Pirates would capture up to 13 percent of votes were elections held this Sunday, which would place them neck and neck with the Green Party and well ahead of the Left Party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). Almost one in three Germans can imagine voting for the Pirates. They are skimming off support from all parties. More importantly, however, they are attracting new potential voters.

It sounds almost too good to be true, a party of computer nerds and freaks, a party of political neophytes, electrifying a large share of German citizens. Avanti Dilettanti -- they wish these amateurs all the best. The Pirates give them renewed hope that politics could be better than it is.

The same hope existed once before, not too long ago. Only a year-and-a-half ago, many Germans believed that a man named Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg could reinvigorate politics. Extremely popular, the young, dashing Guttenberg had quickly become a powerful fixture in Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet and many had thought he had the stuff to become chancellor himself one day. He was as close to a star as it gets in German politics. But those hopes were dashed when it was revealed that Guttenberg had plagiarized large parts of his doctoral thesis, and he was forced to resign as minister of defense.

This says nothing about the Pirates and their prospects of success. It only says that the German people are both deeply disappointed with politics-as-usual and have a great longing for something different. Many people no longer trust conventional politicians. They are tired of the rituals, and they want to be consulted. They want to know what is happening and why, and they want to participate and have their say.

Why the Pirates Are Successful

This is precisely the Pirates' biggest attraction: transparency and participation, as well as a healthy dose of freshness and otherness. This sometimes makes the Pirates seem childishly naïve and chaotic, and yet they seek to make do without backroom backslapping and conventional political smoothness.

The hotly debated childcare subsidy issue is a perfect example of why the Pirates are successful. The idea, which would provide stay-at-home parents state money for their troubles, is a controversial one. Many say it reinforces an antiquated view of the family, others say it would provide an incentive for poor, immigrant families to keep their children at home, thus delaying their acquisition of the German language until their first years in school.

But because Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the influential sister party to Merkel's CDU -- wants it to happen, Chancellor Angela Merkel says that it has to happen. And that's that. Conservatives in parliament are expected to toe the line and vote for the legislation, even though many oppose it. This is traditional politics in its worst form: wheeling and dealing, and the expectation that the rank and file will accept a decision handed down from above. One can only hope that this system will be revamped.

The Pirates want to give it a try. In other words, it isn't just a matter of whether yet another party has acquired seats in the German parliament. Instead, it's about the bigger picture, about the question of whether politics will remain as it is or will improve.

Pirate Communication

Yet, it isn't so easy to revitalize a 63-year-old system, especially one that has also proven to be successful in many respects. It defends itself, but more than anything it absorbs challengers. Adversaries will be subsumed and changed, not the other way around. And that is precisely where we are today. Will the Pirates succeed in changing the system, or is the system changing the Pirates?

Their tools are the Internet and the computer, which they use to develop their policies. To understand the Pirates, it's important to understand how they communicate with one another.

Their system, such as it is, can be illustrated by the case of Christopher Lauer, a 27-year-old member of the legislature in the city-state of Berlin. Recently, he came up with the idea of extending the terms of party leaders from one year to two, arguing that the party needs continuity in its leadership. The proposal will be put up for a vote at the party convention this weekend.

Lauer, though, wants to know what the Pirates think about his proposal before that, and he wants a recommendation from the grassroots to take to the convention. To that end, he uses the Liquid Feedback voting software  to introduce his motion. Party members who have registered are entitled to vote.

The discussion takes place simultaneously on a Pirate Pad, an online document to which everyone can contribute. Lauer also promotes his proposal on Twitter, where he currently has 14,000 followers. Marina Weisband immediately retweets his idea to her own followers, of which she has 25,000. In this way, all it takes are a few clicks before Lauer's idea reaches the majority of the party base.

A Never-Ending Debate

A member named "Herr Bert" also finds out about the motion. Herr Bert, who is opposed to Lauer's proposal, places a counter-initiative on Liquid Feedback. The debate ensues. Members argue and explain their positions on such matters as the early resignation of a party leadership board member. Here is an excerpt:

2:26 p.m. - crackpille: If there's a re-election, the Federal Executive Board stays the same and only the open position is filled in a new election

2:27 p.m. - Anthchirp: Basically amounts to resignation of people + entire re-election of the rest

2:27 p.m. - crackpille: exactly. although I think when you get too many resignations you'll have to justify why only some members of the executive board are being put up for election

2:28 p.m. - crackpille: Because then the advantage (team, continuity) is eliminated

2:28 p.m. - crackpille: which is why you limit it to 1-2 people

2:29 p.m. - Penis: why not limit to 25%?

2:29 p.m. - Penis: that is, a relative representation

2:29 p.m. - Anthchirp: I would say set lower limit to 3 people. Then it also doesn't depend on size of the Federal Executive Board

2:29 p.m. - crackpille: 3 people who stay?

2:29 p.m. - Anthchirp: yep

This is the new sound of politics. The players, crackpille, Anthchirp and Penis, prefer to appear under pseudonyms. This is how Lauer's motion is discussed.

When the Pirates vote in March, after a month of discussion, party member Martin Haase decides in favor of Lauer's motion. Haase is a professor of Romance studies in the Bavarian city of Bamberg and a so-called super-delegate. On Liquid Feedback, Pirates can delegate their votes to other members. In this way, Haase has become probably the most powerful member of the Pirate Party.

Lauer gets 59 votes from Haase. Super delegates Klaus Peukert and Monika Belz contribute 34 and 36 votes respectively. In this way, three party members have contributed 129 of 425 votes in favor of the motion. Lauer's proposal is accepted at a rate of 72 percent on Liquid Feedback. But the debate isn't over yet. The Pirates still have to vote at the national convention, where the outcome from Liquid Feedback isn't binding.

'A Mistake'

Gerhard Anger, the former chairman of the Berlin state chapter, still opposes longer terms for board members. "After all," says Anger, "effective members will certainly be reelected after a year." The Bavarian state chairman, Stefan Körner, is also critical of the proposal. "Many people came to us because they were sick and tired of simply checking a box once every four years," says Körner. "We came onto the scene with the aspiration of bringing the leadership and the base closer together. In the current stage of development, I think a longer term is a mistake."

With such debate structures, the discussion practically never ends. Instead, it's a 24/7 process. The permanent feedback from the base distinguishes the Pirates from all other parties. Each member can participate through mailing lists, wikis or Twitter.

In the election campaign in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, party members worked together on the Internet to design campaign posters, search for venues for party conventions and prepare the party platform, all using crowd-sourcing, harnessing the wisdom of the swarm. It feels like consummate democracy. Everyone can constantly have a say and be involved in all decisions. The people are truly in charge, and policy emerges from the center. It's a very appealing model -- if it works.

But not everyone participates in the Pirates' votes. Some 639 members voted on Lauer's proposal. And they are supposed to set the direction for 25,000 other members? If one also considers the influence super-delegates wield on Liquid Feedback, only a small minority actually shapes the course of the party.

Indeed, it would seem that democracy without representation cannot function in larger groups. Besides, in the case of the Pirates, it's also questionable whether the representatives are sufficiently legitimized, given that the super-delegates are not elected officials.

The Crippling Ambient Noise on the Internet

As it is, members of parliament are only answerable to their own conscience and cannot be forced to do anything through Liquid Feedback. Things will get really complicated if the Pirates eventually become part of a coalition government. If they hope to live up to their claims of grassroots democracy, Pirate Party cabinet ministers will constantly have to obtain feedback from the base and will be torn between the demands of their coalition partner and those of the party. This also applies to other parties, but it will be an even more difficult balancing act for the Pirates. Democracy cannot survive without efficiency and effectiveness. This can contradict the desire to achieve the greatest possible transparency and participation.

"A party that plays a role in the parliamentary process, and even has power aspirations, must be organized differently," says political scientist Stephan Klecha, who studies the Pirate Party under Professor Franz Walter at the University of Göttingen in central Germany.

The ambient noise on the Internet can cripple the party. Almost every remark is commented on or questioned, and the tone isn't always particularly polite, thanks to the protection afforded by anonymity. Essentially, many Pirates lack the competency with which they are widely credited: the proper use of social media like Twitter or Facebook. Fears of provoking a shitstorm have prompted leading party members to avoid TV appearances or interviews in the major media, especially now, ahead of the national convention. "An appearance like that would reduce my chances," says Berlin Pirate Julia Schramm, who wants to become the party's national chairman.

Such fears are turning total communication into silence. As a result, some Pirates have quickly taken on one of the bad habits of classic politics: the excessive caution of top politicians and the fear of speaking one's own mind. Instead of expressing their real views, they are becoming nice, friendly and faceless -- all to make themselves more electable for the majority.

Questioning the System

The major field test for the Pirates has been underway in Berlin since Sept. 18, 2011. On that day, the party captured 8.9 percent of votes in elections to the city-state's legislature, placing 15 Pirates in the state parliament for the first time.

One of them is Martin Delius, 27. Until the election, he worked as a software developer, and now he is the head of his party's parliamentary group. Before our meeting in a café on Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt, Delius tweets that he is about to meet a journalist at the historic city square. He shows up carrying a backpack and wearing an outdoors jacket and rimless glasses, with his long, straight hair pulled back into a ponytail. Delius speaks quietly and competently.

"Our job is to be the interface between the party and real politics," says Delius. "This can't work if we constantly go into fundamental opposition mode. If we want to change things, we can't behave as if we were alone in the world. We don't want to break with tradition. We just want to question it."

It doesn't sound like the party has changed the system, rather that the system has changed the party. In the first few days in the Berlin parliament, the Pirates, just like any other politicians, bickered over the best offices and top positions, tried to find jobs for their friends and soon experienced the limits of their own claim to grassroots democracy.

Their caucus meetings are live-streamed on the Internet, which is certainly a novelty in parliamentary operations in Berlin. But for some this transparency has become annoying.

Hacking Its Way to the Top

The parliamentary group's original sin was its handling of the nomination of Meinhard Starostik as a state constitutional court judge. The parliamentary group had the right to appoint a candidate, but it didn't do so openly. It neglected to solicit the opinions of party members on Liquid Feedback or through other channels. Instead, it proposed Starostik after a series of backroom discussions.

"We had to protect our negotiating position," says Delius. He sounds just like one of his counterparts in the CDU or the Social Democrats -- like any other inveterate politician.

Total transparency can also be a problem in politics. The live stream that the Pirates prefer reveals everything immediately. But not everything is important. Only people who constantly sit in front of their computers have the time to follow everything and keep up with every debate. As a result of the new transparency, a new elite is taking shape that is largely unemployed or at least free to manage its time as it sees fit. In such light, the party's demand for an unconditional minimum income for all takes on a special meaning. Such a law would make viable a new information elite. The rest of the population would inevitably struggle to keep up and lose influence as a result.

There is also the question of whether every idea should be immediately vetted in the confusion of the Internet, or whether it might not make more sense for a few people to first reach a consensus behind closed doors and then put it up for debate. A period of silence can also be a ripening period, particularly as the public stage often tempts the players to behave the way they think the public wants them to behave. Sometimes backroom politics are a good thing, but often they are not. In this respect, politics in general lacks the right sense of proportionality. But total transparency isn't the solution.

What have the Pirates changed in the Berlin parliament? Delius thinks for a moment. "Nothing when it comes to parliamentary operations." He looks at the ceiling. "Oh, there is one thing: The chair can no longer count off votes by parliamentary groups, but has to take individual opposing votes into account instead." In the Pirate parliamentary group, there is no pressure to adhere to a party position; each member is free to vote as he or she chooses.

Tripping on the Nazis

Otherwise, the Pirates haven't accomplished much in their six months in parliament. They submitted two out of three major motions, on school spyware and telecommunications surveillance, but in both cases they were merely reacting to media reports. And they have submitted only a dozen minor motions, which isn't much. The Green Party's parliamentary group has submitted nine times as many.

At the end of the conversation, Delius says: "The rise of the Pirate Party is as fast as that of the NSDAP between 1928 and 1933." He is taken aback by his own words, but because he is determined to be transparent, he sticks by his crude comparison. Shortly after the conversation, Delius broadcasts it on Twitter.

Reactions this week have not been kind . In response to the anger his remark triggered across the political spectrum, Delius apologized for the comparison and withdrew his candidacy for a position on the party's national board. He told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Sunday that it was absurd to accuse him of having any far-right sympathies, and he apologized for the remark in his blog. "The two parties aren't comparable! We have no structural, policy or historical similarities. And I never wanted to indicate that," wrote Delius.

The fact that the Pirates are a young party partly explains why so many things about them seem so strange. On Jan. 5, 2006, Leipzig resident Christian Weiske, who was 23 at the time, reserved the domain name He had read online that a pirate party had been established in Sweden. At first, he placed only one sentence on his new web page: "This domain will be handed over to the Pirate Party as soon as it has been established."

The page ultimately became a launch pad for the German iteration of the Pirate Party. In the summer of 2006, 53 founding Pirates met at the C-Base, a bar popular among the Berlin hacker scene. In their founding document, the new members wrote that they wanted the party to be a "soft party" and not a "clear issues party." "The first three years were filled with hard development work," says founding member Jens Seipenbusch.

The Grassroots

The breakthrough didn't happen until 2009. Then Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen raised the ire of the Internet community by seeking to have child pornography websites blocked. "Censursula was a gift," says Seipenbusch. Weiske turned over the web address to the party in 2007, as promised. He is a "paying member, but not active," he says today. "Other hobbies are more important to me."

The hacker community still makes up the core of the party today. In Bamberg, for example, posters for movies like "The Matrix" and "Terminator 2" hang on the walls, and gutted computers and an oscilloscope are on the table. Tilman Beitter and a few other nerds are taking apart a flatbed scanner, which they want to convert into a Styrofoam cutter. Beitter is 29, is a little green around the gills and has a friendly disposition. He is an application developer, a hacker and a Pirate.

Beitter spends much of his free time in a converted bar near the train station, a space popular with hackers. "In the past, people like us would sit alone in their basements," he says. "Now we've found a place where we can carry out projects together."

The members of the Bamberg hacker space meet almost every day. For them, hacking isn't just the act of penetrating other people's computer systems; most of all, they see it as tinkering. "In the hacker space, we open up computers and look to see what's broken," says one hacker. "The Pirate Party is now doing the same thing with the political system."

Twelve hackers have come to the space on this evening. About half are Pirate Party members. They do things that seem outlandish to other people. In Bamberg, for instance, hundreds of couples have hung padlocks on the railing of a downtown bridge as symbols of their love. The members of the hacker space went to the bridge and broke open as many of the locks as possible, only to hang them back onto the railing again in the same spot. Such forms of hacking are a favorite pastime among nerds.

Revenge of the Digital Natives

Women apparently have little use for such antics. Only four of the 25 members of the Bamberg hacker space are female, and this particular evening is an all-male affair. The small female quotient probably also has to do with the coarse language nerds tend to use. A sign on the bathroom door reads: "Your mother sweats when she craps."

Until a few years ago, Beitter organized LAN parties at a highway rest stop. Thousands of gamers would sometimes show up to face off in games of "Counter Strike" or "World of Warcraft." Today Beitter spends his free time with something called geo-caching, a sort of treasure hunt in which he walks around outside with a GPS receiver, looking for objects that other players have buried.

This is the world that the politics of the Pirates comes from. While politicians are typically outgoing people, quick to talk to anyone at the bar or on the playground, the shy type tends to prevail among the Pirates. Typical Pirates are outsiders who used to walk across the schoolyard alone, and who talk a lot in chat rooms but tend to be reserved elsewhere.

These people engage in politics in the spirit of the game, especially role-playing games. They assume different identities and their true identities become unimportant, allowing them to become whoever they want to be. As a result, they don't need real names, just amusing pseudonyms. There's often a certain amount of flippancy involved. Many original Pirates have a warrior biography and have hunted down people on virtual battlefields, which helps explain their sometimes blunt form of discourse on the web. Chats are often like shootouts: tough, sparse and dry. And no one has to look anyone else in the eye, either.

The establishment of the party was a defensive reflex, as they continue to tell themselves today. From their perspective, the party is an instrument in the battle being waged by the indigenous people of the Internet, the Digital Natives, against all those who seek to colonize and regulate it.

In Search of a Coherent Platform

As such, it is clear what the Pirates are against. They are opposed to the pointless storage of telephone and Internet connection data of all citizens, as the EU requires, and the supposed "nanny state" in general. They believe that existing copyright law is just as outmoded as the current patent system. And they reject all forms of web censorship or warning messages on illegal web content.

What Pirates are for isn't quite as clear. When it comes to alternative solutions and positive counter-proposals, their agenda seems oddly blank in the sixth year of their existence. This even applies to some core issues. In their platform, the Pirates only speak out against the current copy protection systems, and in favor of liberalizing non-commercial duplication. Many Pirates also reject business models like and Megaupload, sites which hosted a significant number of copyright violations in recent years.

The result is anything but a clear profile, even though these are the issues espoused by the party's core members in the hacker and gamer community. But with the party growing so quickly, that core group is now losing influence.

When candidates were being sought for the state parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia in late March, the applicants in the first round were almost all new members. "We call them five-minute Pirates," says Dirk Schatz, 33, a Pirate Party candidate for the state parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia. He is sitting in the party's campaign headquarters in the western city of Essen, clicking his way through the profiles of other applicants. "I don't even know most of them," he says. Click. "Member since end of 2011." Click. "2012." Click. "2012 again. What's he done for the party so far?" Click. "Regular attendee at the Lemgo round table. That's just great."

After the "grilling of candidates," the questioning of applicants at the state party convention, hardly any new members made it onto the candidate list. Nevertheless, the attempts by careerists to hijack the party are on the rise. One even offered the party leadership €10,000 ($13,200) for a spot on the list.

Left-Wing Libertarianism

"We are undergoing a transformation," says Michele Marsching, 33, a software developer and the state chairman of the North Rhine-Westphalia Pirates. "In the past, people in our party ran for office out of pure idealism. Those days are gone, and rightly so. No chairman of a company with 26,000 employees would do his job for free."

The new generation includes those who are attracted to being able to have a voice in politics, and they are bringing along their own issues and views. Virtually anything is possible.

There is no real program beyond the core issues. The basic program includes four paragraphs on the environment, and nothing on economic and financial policy. On the other hand, the Pirates campaign against bans on dancing on Good Friday and in favor of eliminating lists of dog breeds. The Berlin Pirates represent classically leftist positions: an unconditional basic income, a minimum wage and free local public transportation.

In principle, the party is trying to combine the leftist focus on the redistribution of resources with libertarian and individualistic civil rights positions -- which makes for a colorful mix.

Its positions are based on an idealistic worldview in which people act responsibly and abuse neither their freedoms nor benefits provided by the state. Even without controls on the Internet, people remain reasonably civilized, they work if they can find work even though they could live on a guaranteed minimum income. The view precludes the existence of a significant amount of systemic abuse. It would be nice if people were really like that.

But the program isn't all that important, anyway. The Pirates are the first party that isn't united by content but by method: having a say and participating via computer.

What to Do about Extremists

Yet this lack of specificity when it comes to content also invites people who believe that they, with their dubious views, can find a home with the Pirates. Despite their right-wing extremist past, Valentin Seipt and Matthias Bahner, former members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), are still members of the Pirate Party today. A state arbitration board rejected efforts to eject Bahner from the party.

When the party's national arbitration panel decided last Monday that Bodo Thiesen could remain a member, despite his radical right-wing statements, it triggered a heated discussion among the Pirates over how best to deal with extremists. Party Chairman Sebastian Nerz said that he wanted to open the door into the party for converted right-wing extremists. His deputy, Bernd Schlömer, disagreed, saying that the party doesn't have a "rehabilitation mandate."

Berlin state chairman Hartmut Semken, who calls himself "Hase" ("Rabbit") on the Internet, wrote in a blog entry that he rejected the right-wing ideology "from the bottom of my heart." Nevertheless, Semken did compare the Pirates to the Nazis, saying that the calls to eject extremists from the party reminded him of the Nazi Party, which "had a scapegoat for everything."

Semken also drew other surprising parallels between the two groups. "It's certainly interesting that the Pirates like to emulate the campaign methods with which the Nazis captured Berlin (I believe neighborhood strolls, albeit in uniform, are Goebbels' invention, even though that isn't what he called them)."

A shitstorm on the party's mailing lists was the result. Three Berlin Pirates wrote an open letter demanding Semken's resignation. But he stuck to his guns. "I will not learn to despise people, which is why I won't even react to Nazis with contempt," said Semken. "If that means I'm not suited to represent the state organization, then we really have a problem." Semken added that he would decide whether to resign once the excitement had died down. If, at that point, a majority is still calling for his resignation, he said, "then that's exactly what I'll do."

A Honeymoon Period

The party gives the impression of not yet having found itself. It still has no benchmark for what's acceptable and what is not. It wants radical renewal, it refuses to accept boundaries and it gives its members almost no guidelines. Each Pirate is still a party unto himself, because there is no glue holding them together, and some happen to be wayward Pirates.

But people have been forgiving of the Pirates' foibles thus far. They are willing to grant a honeymoon period because they are so relieved to finally have a party that promises to fundamentally change politics.

That's also the case with Benjamin Killewald. He is 20 and from Dormagen in North Rhine-Westphalia. He's a high-school graduate and wants to study social work or history at university. He has been interested in politics for a long time. As a high-school student, he completed an internship in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament. "A whole lot of things are done in the parliament that the average person knows nothing about," says Killewald. "I thought that was a shame." Killewald plans to vote for the Pirates in the state parliamentary election on May 13. "Their concept is great," he says. "Politics has to be made more open." Killewald used to be a member of the Young Socialists, "but all they talked about were petitions to install some traffic signs."

Susanne Lohmann, a 45-year-old physician, was an active Green Party member in the western city of Bochum in the 1980s. She attended demonstrations and helped out in election campaigns. Then came the party's decision to support the deployment of German troops to war-torn Kosovo, and Lohmann decided to stop voting for the Greens. "Even for the Greens, at some point the only important thing was to stay in power, which disappointed me," she says. Now, she adds, she is curious about the Pirates and wants to vote for them. "They simply have a different way of engaging in politics."

The Establishment's View

For the majority of voters, the Pirates are "a projection surface," says political scientist Stefan Klecha. "Two thirds vote for the Pirates out of dissatisfaction with the other parties, and only a third because of their program. Their voter profile is actually typical of that of a populist right-wing party in Europe: mostly young men." The key difference, he adds, is the higher level of education.

In the state parliamentary elections in Berlin and the southwestern state of Saarland, almost half of Pirate voters cited social justice as the issue most important to them. The problem is that only 13 percent of Pirate Party members feel the same way, according to Klecha's research. This, he adds, creates great potential for voter disappointment. But this isn't a new phenomenon in politics. Other parties disappoint their voters, too.

Germany's established parties are now in the process of adjusting to the new competition. "Exclamation point, smiley-face, done," says Peter Altmaier, looking satisfied as he puts down his Blackberry. Altmaier, the parliamentary leader for the CDU and the CSU in the German parliament, the Bundestag, has just sent a new Tweet, ending it with an emoticon. He has just injected some new fuel into the debate he has been having for the last few hours with Volker Beck, his Green Party counterpart.

Partly the discussion revolves around the Pirate Party and the question of who benefits from it. Beck accuses Altmaier of welcoming the rise of the Pirates because it boosts Merkel's re-election prospects by splitting the left-wing vote. Altmaier shoots back, saying that the chancellor did just fine in the last two elections without help from the Pirates. It seems so typical. Big things are happening, and yet traditional politicians are only interested in discussing the power issue.

'Harbingers of Spring'

Yet such questions are important. In addition to former non-voters, the Pirates' supporters come primarily from the Greens, the SPD and the Left Party. The stronger the new party becomes, the less likely an SPD-Green majority in next year's general elections becomes.

Altmaier, a close confidant of the chancellor, makes such calculations as well, but he goes beyond the typical response of the career politician. He sees the Pirates as a reaction to social upheaval, just as the Greens were a consequence of the environmental movement and the Left Party derived its strength from protests against the social policies of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Now there is a new transparency at stake, and the need to participate in politics. "The Pirates are the harbingers of spring of this youth movement," says Altmaier. "We have to provide new opportunities for political participation to people in the middle class who are interested in politics."

The system will change, but only a little at first. The party leadership now tolerates CNetz, a discussion forum in which participants can chat without having any impact whatsoever. The system is strong and enduring. Every chancellor in the last 63 years has been a member of either the CDU or the SPD. In that time, two new parties, the Greens and the Left Party, have established themselves in the Bundestag. They come from completely different cultures than the CDU/CSU, the SPD and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). But instead of changing the system, they were changed by the system. They became classic parties.

The system is such that it rewards celebrity, vagueness and agreements reached behind closed doors. If the masses want to participate, things will become slow and cumbersome. But is it right to cite this as a reason to keep the masses out?

'Growing Pains'

The Pirate Party state chairman in North Rhine-Westphalia is sitting in the conference room at Essen campaign headquarters, talking to top candidate Joachim Paul, 54, a media educator, and professional firefighter Lukas Lamla, 28, who is organizing the election campaign.

The hype, says Marsching, also creates problems. "We're experiencing growing pains. We expect 2,800 people to attend our national convention in late April. This is madness. Our original idea, that everyone should have a say, no longer works under these conditions. We have to abandon this form of grassroots democracy."

Lamla fidgets restlessly in his chair. "But we're just developing the concept of decentralized party conventions. Four simultaneous conventions, in different locations, digitally connected." "Forget it," says Marsching, "there are technical problems with that. We don't have a grassroots democracy!"

Lamla looks perturbed. "Don't we first have to define what exactly grassroots democracy means for us?" he asks. Paul, the top candidate, interjects: "We have a low threshold for access to politics." "Yes, you're right," says Marsching. "But the notion that the base has to be asked about every issue is bullshit! That doesn't work in politics."

Conflict is in the air. "But of course we always have to consult the base," says Lamla. "With your position on the board, you've also been given an advance helping of trust." Marsching looks sullen. "I was voted into office to keep my face in front of the cameras. I'm not just the stupid little administrative idiot here."

A Great Responsibility

Paul nods. As a top candidate, he's familiar with the problem. "I had to give a written interview yesterday, and I had a deadline. Clearly I couldn't coordinate every response with the base, even though there were some really difficult questions."

No one has a reason to rejoice if the Pirates have trouble upholding their standards in political reality. There is a lot more at stake than content. The political system needs renewal, because it makes too many citizens apathetic or alienates them, losing legitimacy as a result. The Internet offers a chance for new forms of participation and transparency, and thus for a new relationship with politics.

The Pirates haven't found the right measure and style yet, and they are still a long way from having a convincing platform. But they do arouse new interest in politics and embody the hope of better politics. This is worth a great deal. But it also translates into a great responsibility not to dash the hopes of the electorate once again.

Marina Weisband, however, won't be part of it anymore. The best-known woman in the Pirate Party decided to resign long before her breakdown on Thursday evening, from which she has fully recovered.

It was just too much for her. She was catapulted out of the normal life of a student and into the political system, and forced to deal with the special rigors of the Pirate Party to boot. Now that she is getting out, she plans to visit her family in Ukraine and then work on her degree dissertation. On Tuesday, she announced via Twitter that she has also become engaged. With her newfound distance from the party, she hopes to figure out which is stronger: the system or the party.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan