Will Germany’s Pirates be walking the plank?

Life’s not all plain sailing for the Pirate Party.

Germany''s Pirate Party grew from humble beginnings in a Berlin ''hackerspace'' [Erik Moller]
Germany's Pirate Party grew from humble origins in a Berlin 'hackerspace' [Erik Moller]

Berlin, Germany – Seven years ago, in the basement of a dimly lit hacker hangout near the banks of Berlin’s Spree River, Germany’s Pirate Party was founded.

The place is named C-base, and it’s one of several such “hackerspaces” in Germany’s capital. Posters and stickers on the walls portray US whistleblower Edward Snowden, Star Trek actor DeForest Kelley, and a Lovecraftian sci-fi role-playing game, “Achtung! Cthulhu”. C-base, the tongue-in-cheek legend goes, was built on the site of a 4.5 billion-year-old space station, and a tour guide proudly shows off fragments of a putative spaceship. (C-base is not officially affiliated with the Pirate Party.)

C-base members – mostly young men – are busy coding, chatting, building, and even sewing. Photos are strictly verboten here, and Al Jazeera was requested to ring an “alien alarm” in an inner sanctum in the basement to inform members that “noobs” were present.

Few would have imagined that a political party launched in this milieu – advocating seemingly niche issues such as internet freedoms and copyright law reform – would only a handful of years later win seats in four state parliaments and, for a brief period in 2012, become Germany’s third-most-popular party [Ge].

But the seas have grown much more choppy since April 2012, when 13 percent of voters said they backed the Pirates. Polls conducted last week show only about three percent of German voters plan to say “aye aye” to the party in federal elections on Sunday – below the five percent of the vote needed to win seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.

So what’s a Pirate Party?

The world’s first Pirate Party, founded in Sweden in 2006, called for liberalising restrictive copyright and patent laws, greater direct democracy, and less government surveillance, says Anton Nordenfur, a board member of the Swedish Pirate Party. Since then, about 50 Pirate parties focusing on these issues have been created around the world, but are most prominent in Europe.

Like real pirates, Germany’s Pirate Party tends to attract irreverent mavericks with a code [Ge] of their own. But it’s not Keira Knightley or treasure troves they crave: The booty sought by Germany’s Pirates is strictly electoral.

Compared to its cousins in other European countries, the German Pirates have been among the more successful in this regard, says Nordenfur – although Pirates in Iceland and Sweden have also gained representation at the federal and European Parliament level.

The Pirates began winning over voters in Germany by being the first to focus on internet freedom issues largely ignored by the political establishment. Others were impressed with the party’s strong emphasis on direct, grassroots democracy: for instance, a software platform named Liquid Feedback lets party members propose and vote on initiatives.

The Pirates have also been going overboard to expand their programme to cover other fields, calling for a guaranteed minimum income of 1,000 euros a month for everyone living in Germany – including non-citizens – more flexible education policies, and closer integration with the rest of Europe.

‘Puppy protection’

A total of 45 Pirates were elected to state parliaments between September 2011 and May 2012. Yet judging by the opinion polls, Germany’s Pirate wave crested in 2012, and their popularity has been sinking towards Davy Jones’ locker ever since.

The German Pirates campaign for political transparency,
and support whistleblowers Bradley Manning and
Edward Snowden [Creative Commons/Ubiquit23]

“I think I made a big mistake,” said Wolfgang, a 27-year-old musician sitting in front of a laptop at a café in central Berlin. Wolfgang – who declined to give his last name – said he voted for the Pirates in Berlin’s state elections in 2011.

“When they first started, they were quite interesting. They seemed to finally be an alternative,” he told Al Jazeera. “Only one month later I regretted it. I would never vote for them again… I’m a musician who writes songs. They say sharing of my music is caring for their rights.”

Other Berliners spoken to by Al Jazeera this week had more general criticisms, describing the party as “almost childish” and “not very serious”. And some of those who are voting for the Pirates frame their support as a protest. They’re “the only choice left”, said Marc Schelp, a paperboy.

Infighting has dented the party’s image. Chairman Bernd Schlomer and former political director Johannes Ponader have squabbled with one another, and prominent party members have blasted each other on Twitter – likely alienating potential voters.

Some also say the media’s attitude towards the Pirates has seen a sea-change, become more negative since their initial electoral successes. Elektra Wagenrad, a specialist in decentralised electronic networks known as “meshnets” whom Al Jazeera met at the C-base centre, said the Pirates were at first treated with Welpenschutz – a word unique to the German language that can be translated as “puppy protection”. When the Pirates were small, quirky and unthreatening pups on the political scene, they were treated with kid gloves.

But once they began to be perceived as a danger to established parties, Wagenrad said, they haven’t been cut as much slack. Pirates have been mocked for behaviour deemed unfitting for politicians: Johannes Ponader took part in an interview on live TV wearing sandals, and used his smartphone throughout the segment. More recently, a Pirate in the Saarland state parliament caused an uproar after she was photographed clad in a bondage outfit.

Spying scandal

This summer, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the United States’ National Security Agency has been spying on electronic communications around the world. Surely, one would think, this would be a golden chance to pick up support, given their party’s focus on data protection and Germans’ strong beliefs on privacy.

Yet an August poll [Ge] found that while most Germans viewed jobs and social justice as very important issues, just over one-quarter identified surveillance and data protection – the Pirates’ forte – as mattering “a lot”.

And Markus Beckedahl, an expert on internet politics in Germany and the founder of website netzpolitik.org, says the Pirates “hadn’t really shown that they know [about the NSA scandal] better than the other parties”.

We really changed the political perspective.

by Martin Delius, Berlin state parliamentarian - and Pirate

Buccaneers in the Bundestag? 

Another common criticism of the Pirates is that – though they have expanded the scope of their politics in recent years – their focus remains too narrow to resonate with voters. “The Pirates and [anti-Euro party] Alternative for Germany are up to now classic single-issue parties,” said Simon Green, a professor of politics at Aston University. “Neither is likely to play a serious role in the coming federal elections, although that is not to say that they will not do so in the future.”

And though they have proven support in urban areas such as Berlin and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Pirates’ nationwide appeal is in question. What appeals to the hip netizens of Berlin doesn’t seem to go over as well with, say, the buttoned-down burghers of conservative Bavaria – just two percent of whom voted for the Pirates in its state elections a week ago.

Yet even if the Pirates don’t sail into the Bundestag this election, its politicians say the party has already made its mark.

Martin Delius, a 29-year-old physicist, software developer and C-base member who was elected to the Berlin state parliament in 2011, acknowledged the party’s structural flaws in the wake of its victories.

But, he said, the Pirates have already succeeded by injecting their concerns into German politics. Now, “all the other parties, even the conservative ones, are trying to force agendas” on issues related to net politics, he said. “We really changed the political perspective.”

The story is fantastic enough already: that ideas forming in hacker dens such as C-base, the nerdiest of places, have percolated up to affect politics in one of the biggest countries in Europe. Whether the Pirates can level up yet again and sweep its buccaneers into the Bundestag remains to be seen.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source: Al Jazeera