The first European Pirate Party emerged in Sweden in 2006, when a group calling itself the Piratpartiet was formed to campaign for the right to download everything. The German Pirates were first elected to the Berlin Landtag last September. Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein followed, and now they have been elected to the assembly in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The Pirates have won support at the expense of all the other parties, and there is talk of their joining a coalition government after the federal election in September 2013.
The party claims to have 30,000 members, though apparently only 13,000 have paid their dues. They have certainly shaken up the political class in the past six months, not least with their informality. Pirates sit in talk shows fiddling with their smart phones. They communicate with each other in a curious mixture of Neudeutsch and web English. Pirates often start their tweets with ‘Ahoi’ and one of the few female pirates began a conference speech with the words: ‘Hi Assembly!’ (It sounds as stilted in German as it does in English.) She has since dropped out of the leadership to finish her degree. But many of the Pirates’ elected members are older than you might think: the chairman is fifty, and has a job in a Berlin ministry.
Their manifesto is thick on rhetoric, thin on substance. They call themselves the ‘party of digital freedom’ and call for an overhaul of copyright law, to fulfil ‘the ancient dream of compiling all human knowledge and culture and to store it for the present and future’. In answer to writers and musicians who see this promise of freedom as a threat to their livelihoods, the Pirates say they want new, innovative ways of rewarding creative activity, though they haven’t said what those ways might be.
The manifesto also says, quoting Willy Brandt, that we should ‘risk more democracy’:
We Pirates aim for maximum democratic equality among all people. The Pirate Party therefore strives to increase and promote every individual’s direct and indirect opportunities for democratic participation.
The Pirates pride themselves on the openness of their debates. At their recent conference, the delegates were all tweeting away like a dawn chorus, but when it came down to brass tacks – should there be a basic income for all, should public transport be ticket-free – only about 1500 party members were involved. Participation is good, but where does the buck stop in a digital voting system?
The Pirates’ activities in the Berlin Senate arouse some doubts about their staying power. One triumphantly announced that the rise of the party could only be compared to the rise of the Nazis in 1930, and another was expelled for expressing extreme right-wing views. They say they have to learn the ropes to steer the ship of state, and want to gather opinions on such policy areas as taxation, the role of the military, health and pensions. The talk of more democracy, open discussions and greater participation is still attractive to Germany’s jaded voters who have stopped listening to the established parties. But the votes for the Pirates at regional level are probably what the Germans call a Denkzettel – a warning that they should not ignore to get in touch with their supporters.