Ditching Transparency Germany's Pirates Batten Down Hatches

Pirate Party chief Christopher Lauer (center): "We wanted to be transparent ... but reality caught up with us."

Pirate Party chief Christopher Lauer (center): "We wanted to be transparent ... but reality caught up with us."


Part 2: Using Transparency as a Weapon

Lauer is far less active on Twitter these days. He can also be reached by email, he says. And, of course, through Ms. Linke.

On the heels of the "text message scandal" came the "mother-in-law scandal." Lauer's opponents within the party's parliamentary group apparently began spreading rumors of nepotism. As Lauer himself states, he has been in a relationship since December with an employee of one of his parliamentary group colleagues. His girlfriend's mother happens to be Linke, the woman sitting next to him on the sofa and keeping watch over what he says. Now, as the conversation turns to her, Linke waves her hand energetically again. "Shall I?" she asks.

She proceeds to explain once again the state of things: that she became a spokeswoman for the party long before Lauer and her daughter became involved. That there is nothing objectionable about the situation, and that the criticism over it is thus effrontery. The word "assholes" comes into play as well, though it is not later submitted for authorization. Linke is no longer just the professional minder, but also one of the affected parties. Lauer excuses himself to go to the bathroom.

Linke's outrage here seems warranted. It appears that Lauer's opponents within the party decided to play a dirty game with him, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's mother, disguised as transparency. The public would actually rather not know the details quite so precisely. There's such a thing as transparency that becomes terror.

When the Pirates' parliamentary group decided to meet and work through the "mother-in-law scandal," one of Lauer's fellow party members proposed conducting the discussion without guests present and switching off the usual live stream, since the matter concerned members' private lives. The decision was nonetheless reached by a very narrow margin, with seven votes in favor of forgoing the usual transparency in this case and six against. The word after the meeting was that it had been a "constructive" conversation -- a classic line used by the established parties.

Disappointment and Resentment

The question is, says Lauer, now returned from the bathroom: "Does political debate benefit when we stream five hours of parliamentary group sessions online? Who exactly is going to watch that?"

The Pirate Party still lacks a guiding principle for its handling of transparency. It makes sense in the political sphere that politicians disclose their additional sources of income or their meetings with lobbyists, as Lauer and the other Pirates do. It also makes sense to have checks in place to prevent shadowy figures somewhere deep within the Defense Ministry from running riot and making a mess of a multi-billion-euro drone project, for example. Attempting more transparency than this, though, runs the risk of destroying both politics and those who engage in it, as the Pirates have painfully shown. There is a difference between voyeurism and transparency.

"I'll read you something," Lauer says, searching for a document on his iPhone. "Oh, come on, where is it?" At the parliamentary group's last session, he says, the members agreed on certain procedures. "We do press relations and public relations together, through the press office. No one goes it alone," reads one item. "We inform each other before we inform the press," reads another. The document continues with other sensible rules that could indeed make cooperation easier. But they also increase the degree to which party members can monitor and control each other's actions, detracting from what is pirate-like about the Pirates.

This is nothing wrong, of course, with the Pirate Party learning lessons from experience or becoming more similar to the established parties. The problem is that the party initially raised a very different set of expectations, promising not only more sensible Internet policies, but also that a completely different type of politics was possible. It was that promise which allowed them to wake a large number of voters from their snoozing approach to democracy.

Resentment toward Pirates at this point may be even greater than it was in the days when the word was associated with Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, rather than with Christopher Lauer and Johannes Ponader.

"This isn't about sealing ourselves off," Lauer says, after reading aloud the new "behaviors" from his iPhone. "It's about internal transparency." Of course, that's one way to describe it.

Linke nods.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


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