Political Neophytes Do the Berlin Pirates Have a Nationwide Future?

The Pirate Party was the sensation of the Berlin city-state elections after winning almost 9 percent of the vote. Now, they are looking ahead to the national German election in two years' time and wondering how to build on their success. But to do so they will need more members -- and more women. By SPIEGEL Staff.


Perhaps one day people will talk about Simon Kowalewski the way they now talk about Petra Kelly and Joseph Beuys, the founders of Germany's Green Party. Perhaps he will one day be regarded as one of the architects of a new movement, as a man who changed German politics.

Kowalewski has a scraggly black beard and long hair, and wears a battered hat with an "I'm a pirate" button, sunglasses and an orange shirt. He rides around on a rickety old mountain bike and calls himself a "radical feminist."

Until recently, most Germans wouldn't even have trusted someone like Kowalewski to look after their dog. Last week, however, 8.9 percent of Berlin's voters entrusted their city's future to this man and his colleagues.

Now, as Kowalewski, who was elected to Berlin's city-state parliament on Sept. 18, walks through the German capital, strangers reach out to shake his hand and congratulate him. When the Pirate Party member arrived at a demonstration last Thursday at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz to protest the pope's visit, a crowd quickly formed around him. People sidled up alongside him, took pictures with their smartphones and immediately put them online. "We intend to shake up the political establishment over the coming five years," pledged Kowalewski, who is a system administrator by profession and ran a vegan organic café up until the elections.

One of the well-wishers, a man named Reinhold, seemed particularly enthusiastic. He is extremely happy with the success of the Pirates, he explained, but he also envisages problems: "I see the Pirates as a single-issue party."

"What issue is that?" asked Kowalewski.

"Well, freedom on the Internet and stuff like that," Reinhold replied.

From the Political Wilderness

Many Germans currently observing the Pirate Party's election success would agree with Reinhold. The newcomers seem somehow exciting, refreshing, and engaging. But what in the world do these people want?

This is one of the many questions that have arisen since the Berlin Pirates entered the political consciousness of the nation. Can we take these people seriously, or are they only interested in playing around? Do they know anything about politics? And, if so, what issues are they interested in besides the Internet?

The Pirates' supporters are also puzzling. What motivated them to elect 15 representatives from a party whose top candidate, Andreas Baum, couldn't even come close to estimating Berlin's public debt during a TV appearance? "Many millions of euros," he stammered. In reality it is over €63 billion. A video clip showing his response made the rounds on the Internet, but that didn't deter voters. According to a recent SPIEGEL opinion poll, 6 percent of respondents "definitely" would vote for the Pirates in the next national election, and an additional 18 percent could imagine voting for them.

This party, which emerged from the political wilderness in Berlin, has virtually nothing in common with the competition. It exudes a freshness and nonchalance the likes of which has not been seen in German politics for many years, although even this freshness has its limits: Pirate meetings occasionally smell like the men's locker room after a game.

On the evening of the Berlin elections, sweaty Pirates gave each other congratulatory hugs and danced under disco lights in the Ritter Butzke club. They were drinking bottled beer and profusely smoking cigarettes and joints.

Pirates Could Upend German System

The Pirates succeeded in taking 54,000 votes away from the other parties on that day. They also brought in many Berliners who had already joined the ranks of non-voters. These voters apparently see the Pirates as a genuine alternative, and that's what makes them such a threat to the established parties. Their success startled even the normally unflappable German chancellor. "Today, we have of course also talked about the Pirate Party," admitted Angela Merkel the day after the election.

If the Pirates ever managed to gain a political foothold throughout Germany, the country's party system would be thrown into the kind of turmoil generated by the foundation of the Green Party and, years later, the far-left Left Party. The current five-party system could then become a six-party system, and the political landscape would be split even further. Above all, the Pirates represent a challenge for the Greens.

Until the Berlin election, the Greens believed they were the darling of Germany's young voters -- the generation that grew up with the Internet. Now, that sense of certainty has been shaken. "We shouldn't underestimate them," warned the head of the Green Party's youth wing, Gesine Agena.

The Pirates are less demure on this front. As they celebrated at the election night party in Ritter Butzke, comments from the other parties flickered across the screens during the course of the evening. When the Greens' top candidate, Renate Künast, who is 55, asserted that the Greens were also fairly "Internet-savvy," the Pirates burst out laughing. "You're old, you're old!" they chanted throughout the club. It sounded as if the grandchildren were making fun of granny.

This was a strident challenge from another generation and culture. Beyond their differences with the other parties on political issues, the Pirates primarily object to the way politics has been conducted in Germany. The current age-old system of political participation focuses on local party chapters with their stodgy backrooms.

Old-Fashioned and Stuffy

Many people in Germany are also increasingly put off by the other pillars of this system: the necessity, for instance, of climbing up through the party ranks for years, and the many secret deals forged by the upper echelons, who look to the party's rank and file for applause, but no creativity. The Pirates also object to the country's political rituals, which have been accepted for decades, but now appear to have fallen out of step with the times: the slogans on the posters, the cute little stands in urban pedestrian zones with their displays of CDU stickers or SPD pens, and the panel discussions as venues for the closest possible interaction between voters and politicians. The Pirates essentially denounce Germany's established parties as old-fashioned and stuffy.

Their vision of a new and modern way of conducting politics could be observed last week at Pirate Party headquarters in Berlin's Mitte district. Everyone politely waited their turn to speak. The meeting resembled a Bible study group with laptops. Many Pirates were sitting slumped in their chairs, muttering and staring at their screens or, rather, at the meeting minutes, dubbed the "Pirate pad," which they collectively edit in real-time online. Everyone present can make postings, correct and erase.

Anyone who can't make it to the meeting follows the debate online. Everything is transparent, including the note: "Take a break and have a smoke."

The Pirates attempted a live Internet broadcast of their first parliamentary group meeting at the Berlin House of Representatives last Thursday, but so many viewers logged on that the stream kept crashing. Using a program called "Liquid Feedback," it is also possible for all members to submit motions over the Web, which are subsequently voted on. If a proposal achieves a certain quorum, the state executive committee deals with the issue. The party's election platform for Berlin was also prepared on the Internet using Liquid Feedback, and then approved at a party conference.

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