German politics has experienced two big shocks in 2011. First came the election of the first ever Green-led coalition in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg in March. The election represented the party’s apparently decisive transformation into the third force in German politics, supplanting the ailing pro-free market Free Democrats, the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition.
The result was seen as a sign that the traditional German political system is coming apart. The old coalition recipe — featuring two big Volksparteien (people’s parties) and two smaller coalition parties that perennially lined up with one of the big two — is more or less at an end.
Neither Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats on the centre right nor the Social Democrats on the centre left are winning much more than a quarter of German votes in federal opinion polls or state elections.
The big two now just number among several party alternatives, which range from the Left Party (with its ex-communists and disillusioned SDP types) through to Merkel on the right (the fascist NDP is perennially "beyond the pale" in post-war German politics).
The second big shock to the Berlin political establishment came in the city’s local elections in late September.
These saw the rapidly growing Pirate Party score nearly 9 per cent, providing 15 new deputies to the Berliner state parliament.
The party, whose German chapter was founded in 2006 in Berlin’s c-base (a computer nerd’s club known as one of the biggest "hackerspaces" worldwide), had gone viral. The Pirates had struggled to pass 2 per cent in state elections held earlier this year but in a very short space of time, their popularity has turned around and they’re now the latest sign of German voters’ discontent with the current political options available to them.
Since the Berlin state election in late September, the party has gone nationwide. The Hamburger Abendblatt reported one poll result two weeks ago predicting the Pirates winning 8 per cent nationwide.
So who are these pirates, who right now would determine Angela Merkel’s fate if an election were to be held?
The party’s first chapter was in Sweden where the party has had rather mixed fortunes. The pirates were connected to the then popular file-sharing site Pirate Bay.
The Swedish Pirates’ manifesto declares that they are for the right "of individuals to share their culture and knowledge with others". It rails against what it calls the "criminalisation" of file-sharers downloading files, comparing attempts by governments to curb downloading with the "surveillance state … of the one-time Eastern Bloc".
The Swedish pirates scored a big win in 2009, when they scraped into the European Parliament for the first time. Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter’s report called the result an "electoral sensation", with the party scoring 5.1 per cent of the vote, enough to send a representative to Brussels.
The paper’s demographic analysis at the time found that "the party was the second strongest group in the 18-29 demographic, though very few of [their supporters]are women".
While the Swedish Pirates flopped at the 2010 federal elections, 2011 has seen the party experience something like a renaissance in Germany.
The German party has been keen to get away from its image as "the computer party", reports regional newspaper aggregator Der Westen. The site says the Pirates have positioned themselves — in somewhat of an echo of Wikileaks — as the "party of transparency", one that aims to ensure that "citizens are more strongly involved in decision-making".
Der Westen describes the party’s internal processes in its dispatch. The party’s motto is "do it", according to the site. This means that no matter what the proposal, party members receive automatic "support" for their proposals, "though they are also asked to become active" in campaigning for their proposed measure.
But the party’s success was quickly followed by criticism in the German media about the lack of female pirates. Just one of the party’s 15 Berlin parliamentary representatives is a woman, reports German weekly Der Spiegel.
The magazine winces at Berlin party leader Andreas Baum’s justification of why this is the case: "the women don’t want to be on the frontline because sometimes you have to deliver speeches before 100 or 1000 people".
Yet what of the party’s program? Le Monde reprints a German essay christening the pirates "the children of Marx and Microsoft". The paper says while the theoretical roots of the group lie in the ideas of small-state American libertarianism, "one shouldn’t overestimate the importance of those roots".
According to Le Monde, the Berlin party’s members profess everything from Marxism to conservatism. What unites them is a desire for "direct democracy", one in which the tools afforded by the internet allow constant polling of citizens on the issues of the day-and in which one day citizen’s direct voting will decide policy directly.
As for the party’s own current program, Le Monde argues that with its call for "free public transport and a universal living wage", the party won support from the "radical left" in Berlin, a large proportion of the electorate in the traditionally progressive city.
"Aside from that, the party eschews the traditional left/right dichotomy", the paper concludes.
One of the biggest losers of the election were the Greens, who had been hoping after Fukushima to send the next mayor to the Berliner town hall — but will now spend another five years in opposition. They failed to form a coalition with either of the major parties after the September election, and coming in third with 17 per cent of the vote, down 12 per cent on opinion polls taken just four months ago.
Die Zeit asserts that the Pirates’ success comes because of the Green Party’s failure to hold onto supporters further on the left. Die Zeit opines that the Greens had become too "ideologically flexible" in recent years, alienating younger and more left-wing voters.
Sociologically, the Greens have been unable to "forge a connection between old 68ers who donate to Greenpeace sometimes and young internet creatives", with the latter deserting the party in the Berlin poll, argues the German intellectual weekly.
Still others in the German media see the Pirates as just another party bound to disillusion its voters. Jungle World — whose readers represent precisely the young, creative milieu that voted for the pirates in September — was already calling time out on the media hype last week: "One week after the election and it was already goodbye to what the party had regarded as its [internally decided policy]consensus … and so it will continue, until the party as seen as what they really are: just another party, with a minor in self-promotion."
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.