Can the Pirate Party Change German Politics?

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A recent public opinion poll showing the Pirate Party at 13 percent - making it the third most popular political party in Germany - has the country's political establishment in a stir. The Pirate Party, which did not even exist six years ago, and which had rarely polled even 2 percent by this time last year, now has seats in two state legislatures scoring 8.9 percent of the vote last fall in Berlin and 7.4 percent two weeks ago in Saarland.

The party now appears poised to pick up seats in in Schleswig Holstein on May 6 and in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state, on May 13. What is perhaps most amazing has been the lightening speeds with which the party has organized and fielded candidates with very little prior infrastructure in place as soon as these elections have been called.

If the Pirates remain near these levels the mathematics of likely traditional coalitions on either the left or the right would become almost impossible to organize in the national election to be held next year. That leads to one of two possibilities, either another “grand coalition” between the two main contesting parties (CDU/CSU and the SPD) or admission of the Pirates into a three-way coalition, something that is hard to imagine. The rise of the Pirates has so far been at the expense of the center-left SPD and the Greens. The Greens, which took control of their first state government just last fall, have suddenly lost the aura as the alternative or protest party, particularly as Chancellor Merkel’s famous U-turn on nuclear power stole from them their core issue. As a result, the Green factions in Europe are trying hard to co-opt the Pirates by adopting some of its platform.

The Greens now appear middle-aged, stale and pre-digital to many alternative voters. Meanwhile, the Pirates, whose platform is very narrowly focused on Internet freedom and what they view as overly restrictive intellectual property laws, faces a dilemma of either getting pulled into becoming a more traditional party with positions on a full range of issues outside of their areas of interest and expertise, or continuing to focus their intensity and purity on this narrow range of issues at the risk of becoming cast as a fringe group.

Another issue facing the Pirates is their uncertain relationship to two other major cross-border protest movements that also burst across the globe in the second half of last year: Anonymous and the Occupy Movement.  

All three are motivated by a feeling of oppression at the hands of global corporations and overly-intrusive governments. All three call for participatory democracy, transparency, an egalitarian ethic and personal freedom. However, the Occupy Movement’s very name raises the image of operating in physical space, and its focus on inequities in the real economy and identification with the 99 percent sets it apart from the other two movements, both of which traffic in the virtual world and are made up of a definite minority of the technically literate and young males. The Pirates’ relationship with Anonymous is of more importance. Both have their origins in opposition to data retention policies of the government and opposition to what they see as attempts to extend corporate plutocracy to the virtual world through copyright law. 

Although the Pirate Party in Germany has issued statements denouncing illegal activities, such as distributed denial of service attacks, the party’s rhetoric and very name brings into question what Munster political scientist Klaus Schubert has called the party’s lack of clarity about its relationship to the state. This suspicion is evidenced by the German police’s seizure of the Pirate Party’s servers last year, the Swiss Pirate Party’s decision to host WikiLeaks and comments by Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the first Pirate Party in Sweden, when he said that he “loved” Anonymous and “admired their ability to deliver time and again.” The question for some then is whether the Pirate Party chooses to play an electoral Sinn Fein to an Anonymous army.

The evolution and staying power of the German Pirate Party will be a major factor to observe leading up to the 2013 elections. Whether the Pirate parties in other countries have any impact will probably be influenced by the success of the party in Germany, although the electoral impact of parties in countries without strong proportional representation is questionable. Representatives from Pirate parties from 25 countries met this month in Prague to try to build momentum. The Occupy Movement, which in retrospect appears to have been the most recent hiccup in the occasional anti-globalization protests over the past several decades, seems to have been all sound and fury with no tangible results.

Of the three, Anonymous, and its ability and willingness to take action, would seem to be the most significant in a vulnerably networked world. The inability of its adherents to find redress through the political process to what they see as provocations such as limitations on Internet freedom (e.g. SOPA, ACTA) and attacks on individual liberty (e.g. data retention policies) give every reason to believe that they will not remain passive.

The press has often described the global surge in online citizen participation since the “Arab Spring” as Facebook politics. It would be a misnomer, however, to apply this term to the activities of both the Pirate parties and Anonymous, which stand very much in opposition to the Facebooks of the world in their farming of user data for advertising revenue and corporate profits; not to mention Facebook being the very antithesis of online anonymity as a bulwark against government monitoring.

The question of the moment, extending well beyond the political scene in Germany where it is now most salient, is whether these three movements coalesce in some manner to constitute a significant cross-border counterweight to established power or disappear after a brief time upon the stage.  

(AP Photo: Supporters of the Pirate Party jubilate in Saarbruecken, southwestern Germany Sunday March 25, 2012.)

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