Members of the Pirate Party at the state parliament in Berlin on Monday. The party won 8.9 percent
in elections in the city-state. photo: Hannibal Hanschke - European Pressphoto Agency
September 19 was International Talk Like a Pirate Day but in Berlin the pirates were THE talk.
[UPDATE: There's also a cool background story at SPIEGEL ONLINE]
Pirates’ Strong Showing in Berlin Elections Surprises Even Them
By NICHOLAS KULISH
re-posted from the NY Times
BERLIN — With laptops open like shields against the encroaching cameramen, the young men resembled Peter Pan’s Lost Boys more than Captain Hook’s buccaneers when they were introduced Monday as Berlin’s newest legislators: They are the members of the Pirate Party.
Asked if they were just some chaotic troop of troublemakers, Christopher Lauer, newly voted in as a state lawmaker for the district of Pankow, replied with no lack of confidence, “You ought to wait for the first session in the house of representatives.”
By winning 8.9 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election in this city-state, these political pirates surpassed — blew away, really — every expectation for what was supposed to be a fringe, one-issue party promoting Internet freedom. The Pirates so outstripped expectations that all 15 candidates on their list won seats — seats are doled out based in part on votes for a party rather than for an individual. Normally parties list far more candidates than could ever make it, because if they win more than they nominate, the seat must remain unfilled.
These men in their 20s and 30s, who turned up at the imposing former Prussian state parliament building, some wearing hooded sweatshirts, and one a T-shirt of the comic book hero Captain America, were no longer merely madcap campaigners and gadflies. They had become the people’s elected representatives.
The question that members of Germany’s political establishment are now asking after the insurgent party stormed the statehouse is this: Are the Pirates merely the punch line to a joke, a focus of protest, a reflection of electoral disgust with all established political parties — or an exciting experiment in a new form of online democracy?
“They are absolutely not a joke party,” said Christoph Bieber, a professor of political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen. While there was certainly an element of protest in the unexpectedly large share of the votes the Pirates won, they were filling a real need for voters outside the political mainstream who felt unrepresented. “In the Internet, they have really found an underexploited theme that the other political parties are not dealing with,” Mr. Bieber said.
The state election in Berlin on Sunday was full of surprising results. The pro-business Free Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners in the federal Parliament, crashed and burned, again, receiving less than 2 percent of the vote. That is well below the 5 percent needed to remain in the statehouse. The Green Party continued to build on its recent successes and may well become one of the governing parties in Berlin.
While issues like online privacy and data protection may seem incredibly narrow, even irrelevant, to older voters, for young people who often spend half their waking hours online, much of it on social networking sites where they share their most intimate moments, it is anything but a small issue. And the Pirates’ call for complete transparency in politics resonates powerfully with a generation disillusioned by the American case for war in Iraq and galvanized by WikiLeaks’ promise to put an end to secrecy.
The Pirates’ surprisingly strong showing came as further evidence of voter dissatisfaction in Germany with the established parties, and what many see as their inability to look beyond self-interest and focus instead on the needs of their constituents. The Pirates have promised to use online tools to give party members unprecedented power to propose policies and determine stances, in what they call “liquid democracy,” a form of participation that goes beyond simply voting in elections.
The party has broadened its initial platform, which focused on file sharing, censorship and data protection to include other social issues, advocating the Internet as a tool to empower the electorate and engage it in the political — and legislative — process.
“Today’s cadre of politicians is missing out on asking some very relevant questions about the future,” said Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party, which he started in Sweden in 2006. He was celebrating with his German colleagues at Sunday night’s election party in a room filled with disco balls and disassembled mannequins in the Kreuzberg nightclub Ritter Butzke. Thanks to the interactive nature of the Internet, “you don’t have to take these laws being read to you,” he said. “You can stand up, stand tall and write the laws yourself.”
Mr. Falkvinge summed up the significance of the Berlin election for the nascent movement in terms members would understand: “German Pirates have the high score now.”
Sebastian Schneider, who asked to be called Schmiddie “or no one will know who you’re talking about,” a member of the party and one of the people celebrating Sunday night, said that there was no other party he could envision voting for.
“In my opinion, the Greens are a conservative party by now,” Mr. Schneider said. “They were not quite sure if they wanted to join the dark side of the force or not,” by which he said that he meant forming a coalition to govern Berlin with Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
There were plenty of young people, many with dreadlocks or beards and a few with both, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and sipping beer. Others wore jackets with CCC written on the back, short for the Chaos Computer Club, a hackers’ collective that got its start in Berlin and has an overlap in membership with the Pirates. A stand-up comedian working in classic Berlin cabaret style poked fun at the influx of tourists and the recent rent increases that became major issues in the election campaign, saying: “There are no more buildings to occupy. Next we’ll have to start occupying five-star hotels.”
Mayor Klaus Wowereit of Berlin, whose Social Democrats won the most votes on Sunday, assuring him a third term as the city’s mayor, may have paid the young party the highest compliment of all, taking it seriously enough to attack the day after the election. He raised a prickly problem for young men who spend their evenings writing computer code: There were next to no women in their group.
“Gender politics has not arrived for the Pirates yet, and that is not a step forward but a step backward,” Mr. Wowereit told reporters Monday.
Indeed, at Monday’s news conference only young, white men sat at the conference table representing the party. Mr. Lauer, himself wearing a sports jacket, said that the mostly scruffy people were “not a representative slice of this society,” and that it was a problem that the party was working on.
The Pirates could be disarmingly honest, and were unfailingly polite to security guards, cameramen and anyone else they came across. Transparency in politics means “also being able to admit when we don’t know something,” said Andreas Baum, the party’s lead candidate in the election.
Asked what kind of real change a small party in a state legislature could really bring about, Mr. Baum replied, “The very fact that these other parties are now asking themselves how we won these votes is already progress.”
VIVA! PIRATES VIVA!