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The Politics of Shitstorms Is the Pirate Party Its Own Worst Enemy?

Germany's political establishment doesn't know how to react to the Pirate Party, which now has seats in two state parliaments and owns the debate on Internet issues. But although the party's radical experiments in transparency and participation may have caught its rivals off guard, its no-holds-barred debating culture can also backfire. By SPIEGEL Staff

When German political parties invite their leaders to retreats, they like to use proven formulas. On the evening before the event, the top officials arrive in their dark limousines at a luxury hotel in the countryside, where they attend a festive dinner followed by fireside chats in small groups.

The next morning, they meet for discussions behind closed doors. The view of the beautiful rural surroundings is meant to take the politicians' minds off their hectic lives in Berlin and allow them to focus on the important things. After the retreat, the leadership announces its new strategy to the party base.

But it can also be done differently. A couple of weeks ago, the national and state executive committees of the Pirate Party, which campaigns on a platform of political transparency and Internet freedom, met at a youth hostel in the central German city of Kassel. The officials slept in four-bed rooms with bunk beds, which makes sense, given that the party advocates a culture of sharing, at least when it comes to data. Their debates were broadcast via the Internet using webcams, so that party members would not feel left out when their leaders discussed upcoming election campaigns.

Aleks Lessmann, the managing director of the Bavarian wing of the Pirate Party, was happy to explain some terminology -- while sitting outside on a table tennis table in the sun. Phrases like "executive meeting" are taboo for his people, because they make them think of hierarchies and backroom meetings. Continuing with the pirate metaphor, "captains' meeting" isn't bad, Lessmann said, but perhaps it would be even better to use a term like "small harbor." In the end, the group agreed to name their weekends at the youth hostel the "Marina Kassel" ("Kassel marina").

For Lessmann, 44, transparency, freedom and cloud intelligence are the issues of the 21st century. "The other parties simply don't understand this," says Lessmann, a project manager by profession. "We only became politicians out of self-defense."

A New Force in German Politics

Lessmann's Pirates stand a good chance of thoroughly upending the German party system in the next few months, just as the Greens did in the 1980s. Since the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party minority government in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia collapsed two weeks ago, the party has been practically overrun by candidates.

Many of them are new to politics, with some 200 crowding onto a list of candidates for the May 13 state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. It took the party a whole weekend to elect 42 final candidates who will now run for parliament. The state is Germany's most populous, and hence the elections there also have implications on the national level. The Pirates also believe that their chances are good in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which will also hold a state election on May 6.

The Pirates will have been encouraged by their sensational result  in Sunday's election in the tiny western German state of Saarland, where they built a functioning campaign team out of nothing  within the space of just a few weeks. The party got 7.4 percent of the vote, meaning it will now be represented in a second state assembly. It also has seats in the assembly in the city-state of Berlin, where it stunned the German political establishment by winning almost 9 percent of the vote  in last September's state election.

Never in Germany's postwar history has a political party established itself as quickly as the Pirates. State-level organizations in all of Germany's 16 federal states have been in place for some time, and new local organizations are taking shape in many places, such as Altötting in Bavaria, Bautzen in the eastern state of Saxony and Ulm in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

The party is currently polling around 6 percent in nationwide surveys -- putting it ahead of the beleaguered business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), Angela Merkel's junior partner in her coalition government.

Abandoning the Usual Rituals

The dramatic development apparently hasn't gone unnoticed at the very top. "Parts of the Internet community are supplementing parliamentary democracy with their commitment but also with their protests," newly elected German President Joachim Gauck said in his inaugural speech.

The Pirates' success forces the established parties to confront challenges. Until now, they were accustomed to thinking in terms of political blocs. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the FDP were right of center, while the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green Party and the Left Party were to the left. But where do the Pirates stand? In the Berlin parliament, they sometimes vote with the CDU and sometimes with the Left Party.

This new lack of clarity is confounding leaders in the establishment. The Pirates are a party that makes do without well-known faces. Its leadership is constantly shifting. Hardly has an executive committee become halfway established before it changes again. Some people cannot deal with the constant Twitter attacks from within their own ranks or with the constant discussions about hierarchies, compromises and other supposed failings of offline politics.

After all, one of the goals of the Pirate Party is to distance itself from the usual political rituals. While conventional politicians usually do little more than simulate participation through dialogue with citizens, the Pirates promise more around-the-clock participation in the political decision-making process.

Digital channels like Twitter, or the Liquid Feedback voting software  which is closely associated with the Pirate Party, provide the party with a high potential for mobilizing people. This makes it so attractive for like-minded people -- and so unpredictable for the established parties.

Shaking Up the Agenda

Sometimes the Pirates and their allies manage to place issues that were practically unknown, or at least of little interest to the Berlin establishment, onto the national political agenda practically overnight.

One of those issues is the dispute over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which brought tens of thousands of web activists  into the streets recently. And last week the issue of data retention was back on the agenda. Data retention, which allows telecommunications data to be stored by the state and used for law-enforcement purposes, has been a controversial issue in Germany in recent years. Politicians in Merkel's coalition government have been kicking the can down the road on the issue for years.

In both cases, waves of protests washed across the Internet, while the coalition government and the opposition could do little in response. Such so-called "shitstorms" (the English word has quickly become established in German) intimidate politicians who are not particularly Twitter-savvy. Many politicians are now playing safe and avoiding Internet-related issues altogether, because they know they cannot generate enough support within the web community.

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather," reads "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which the Pirates like to quote. They see the Internet as a kind of Wild West where governments and corporations have no place.

The fight against software patents and Internet censorship unites the Pirates, who are determined to prevent established political and commercial interests from being transferred to the digital sphere. They fear a nanny state on the Internet that observes and records their every move.

Utopian Promises

On Sept. 10, 2006, only a few months after an EU guideline on data retention was passed, net activists met in a Berlin "hacker space" on the banks of the Spree River and founded the German branch of the Pirate Party. "We simply had the feeling that it was the best way to draw attention to our concerns," says Jens Seipenbusch, one of the party leaders from 2006 to 2011.

Unnoticed by the establishment, an entire generation of supposedly apolitical Internet citizens was mobilized.  The anxiety over the seemingly unlimited thirst for data on the part of government agencies and corporations helps to shape the movement's self-image -- just as the fear of environmental destruction once united the Greens.

Other issues were added to the Pirates' platform, some of which seem utopian. For instance, the Pirates want to introduce an unconditional basic income for every citizen as well as free public transport. They also want to eliminate restrictions on migrant workers from developing countries. Some party members also feel that patents are outdated.

This position is also based on the pet idea of the web community: free access to information, films and music on the Internet, unobstructed by supposedly outdated copyright laws. The Pirates want to transfer this free access into the offline world. The party derives its strength "from the need for intellectual and creative freedom, freedom of opinion and giving the young generation a voice in government and society," says Pavel Mayer, a member of the Berlin Pirate Party.

Populist demands are the downside of the grassroots-democracy approach within the party, in which the Pirates, through their voting software, can submit new requests on a daily basis. On Liquid Feedback, one member is currently seriously proposing that all euro-zone countries reintroduce their old currencies, but without abolishing the euro.

Updating the System

No other movement has applied the technical possibilities of the Internet to politics as quickly and thoroughly. The decision to hold new elections in North Rhine-Westphalia had hardly been reached before the Pirates, using Twitter and Mumble (a platform for voice conferences), began preparing for the next campaign.

Other parties would hire an advertising agency, set up a campaign headquarters and give their general secretary the final say on logos. The Pirates, on the other hand, develop their campaigns on the Internet in a collaborative way, as if they were jointly writing an article on Wikipedia.

That was also the way the new campaign posters came about. Supporters submitted their proposed layouts on a website called Piratenwiki, which is based on a collaborative "wiki" similar to Wikipedia. Meanwhile, a campaign for the best slogans developed on Twitter. Then votes were held using virtual ballots. The winner was a slogan that describes North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) as a software problem. "An update is available for this system," it reads, deliberately mimicking a computer message.

Many established politicians from the right to the left are pretty much at a loss when confronted by such campaigns. The problem begins with the fact that most of them don't even dare to enter the world of the Pirates.

A Conservative Politician Takes to Twitter

Peter Altmaier is one of the few who have ventured into the digital discussion spaces. Altmaier, the leader of the CDU/CSU group in the German parliament, the Bundestag, has had a Twitter account for the last few months. He now has over 9,000 followers, which isn't bad for a conservative politician.

"Only if we become involved on the web can we successfully defend our positions there," says Altmaier. One reason the Pirates are so powerful on the Internet, he adds, is that no one is challenging their dominance of the debate. When it comes to copyright issues, says Altmaier, hardly anyone is arguing for the positions of the established parties.

Even Altmaier is of two minds. On the one hand, he enjoys his status as a web pioneer for the conservatives. On the other hand, he isn't quite confident enough to use Twitter to defend all of the CDU's positions. For instance, he hasn't used Twitter to argue in favor of data retention, knowing full well how mercilessly the public can respond to positions they don't agree with.

Other web-savvy politicians are approaching the Pirate power with a mixture of caution and respect. Take, for example, Dorothee Bär, the 33-year-old deputy general secretary of the CSU, the CDU's Bavarian sister party. Not only is she opposed to data retention, but she also thinks it's a good idea that ACTA is now on hold. But with these views she's also more or less alone in her party.

Keelhauled by the Pirates

The SPD has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to web policy. For a time, there was an initiative called "Pirates in the SPD," headed by Björn Böhning, the former head of the party's youth organization. An online advisory board of about 20 people was formed, and it included prominent web activists like the well-known German blogger Sascha Lobo. But this didn't fit well with the party's pragmatic approach to politics. The advisory council disbanded when the SPD, as part of the former "grand coalition" government with the CDU and CSU, agreed to a controversial law which would have allowed the state to block access to websites featuring child pornography. Since then, younger SPD members have been trying to attract attention with a group called the "Web Policy Task Force."

The SPD example is indicative of a general trend. Young Internet specialists in the established parties are often ideologically closer to the Pirates than to their fellow party members, who often destroy attempts at rapprochement with the web community with a single, poorly informed statement.

But it is the Greens, as a party that used to have broad appeal for young people, that is particularly displeased by the fact that others are seeking to take their place. The new Pirate Party doesn't "have a single issue" it could call its own, complains Green Party floor leader Jürgen Trittin, 57.

In upcoming election campaigns, the veterans of past protests intend to focus on what they portray as the arbitrariness of their young rivals. "When we look at the Pirates, we can see what happens when a weakness in terms of personnel is combined with a lack of content," says senior Green Party politician Volker Beck. "Debates on policies seem to drown in their own Liquid Feedback."

'Bye Bye FDP'

On the other side of the spectrum, the liberal FDP is getting nervous. They are fighting for their survival in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, and they now view the competition with great concern. Party strategists fear that the Pirates are undermining the FDP in the area of civil liberties and could siphon off younger voters.

"The field of Internet policy still isn't as important within the party as we would like it to be," says Lasse Becker, the head of the FDP's youth organization. "Given our emphasis on civil liberties, we have to develop a stronger stance on web policy. A Facebook profile alone isn't enough."

A few years ago, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the FDP, could have become the heroine of this Internet freedom movement. As a member of the opposition, she and others had filed a suit against the data retention legislation.

But now she is German justice minister. Last week, the European Commission gave the German government a final, four-week deadline to agree on a new data retention law, in order to implement the EU's directive on the issue, otherwise it could face legal action. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is in a no-win situation. The legislation won't happen without compromises with the conservatives, and even her own watered-down proposal earned her much criticism among the web community. "Bye bye FDP," Pirate supporters tweeted sarcastically.

A Tendency Toward Self-Destruction

Dishing out criticism, attacking and mocking their adversaries -- the approach that the Pirates use so effectively in dealing with the established parties has also been directed at some of their own people for some time. It can happen quickly, as Michele Marsching, the chairman of the state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, experienced last week.

He had given an interview with his mobile phone while walking his dog in the woods. A German online news website ran a story on its front page, summarizing the interview with the headline: "Pirate Party Supports Higher Salaries in NRW State Parliament." It only took an hour before the term "Salarygate" surfaced on Twitter.

Marsching was spreading half-baked ideas, one person wrote. Others were less reserved and berated him as a "money-grubbing asshole." The young politician quickly tried to contain the damage with a blog entry about "shitstorms, half-quotes and other human weaknesses."

The tendency toward self-destruction and the lack of a digital discussion culture could still turn into a bigger problem within the party.

Swapping Twitter for a Book

Matthias Schrade is a member of the national executive committee. As a financial analyst, he is one of the few Pirates who wears a suit and tie. There are people griping on Twitter every few minutes, he says, and sometimes the disparaging remarks can go on for days. In a furious blog entry, he addressed the "aggressive behavior" of his fellow party members, adding that such behavior would probably prompt most people to consider abandoning the party.

But instead of throwing in the towel, Schrade opted for a partial withdrawal -- from Mumble, mailing lists and other digital channels. Instead of checking Twitter, he frequently spends his evenings reading books instead.

He has also started communicating with other Pirates in a very old-fashioned and, most of all, non-transparent way: He reaches for the phone.

REPORTED BY SVEN BECKER, RALF BESTE, FRANK HORNIG, RENÉ PFISTER, MARCEL ROSENBACH AND MERLIND THEILE

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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