Friday, October 26, 2012

The Pirate Party Walks the Plank

When the German Pirate Party was founded in 2006, the battle for civil liberties and a less regulated Internet were at the forefront. Computer users were under threat from Internet censorship and data storage, and the party successfully took up this subject that other political parties were largely ignoring. Not until  later did the Pirate Party  present itself in election campaigns as an anti-establishment party, with demands for civic participation, transparency and grassroots democracy. That change did win over many protest voters. The Pirate Party was triumphant in Berlin state elections a little over a year ago, emerging as a protest movement against the establishment, promising transparency instead of backroom politics. This spring the party was polling at 13 percent. Since then, though, it seems voters have come to recognize that the Pirate Party often offers little more than a spectacle. In practice the transformation has proven difficult. Voters can't tell what the party stands for, and even the party's members don't seem entirely sure.

 The Pirate Party is now at risk of failing to meet the "five-percent hurdle," the percentage of votes a party needs in order to take seats in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. The Pirates' successful run at the regional level seems to have slowed to a stop. After electoral victories in the federal states of Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein and Saarland, the party now looks to be in danger of defeat in the state of Lower Saxony, which will go to the polls in January. The Pirate Party has dropped to 4 percent in the polls in Lower Saxony. Endless debates and power struggles within the party have taken their toll, wearing down members and scaring off voters.

"What we're offering is not a program, but an operating system," Marina Weisband, the party's ex-political director, confidently declared a year ago. In North Rhine-Westphalia the Pirate Party have used  voting software called LiquidFeedback to gather general opinions on a proposed law to regulate circumcision which showed 17 in favor of fighting the proposed law, two in abstention and one against -- 20 votes in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants.  A request from the party's national leaders for members to submit ideas to a working group on the election campaign produced few suggestions from the party's ranks -- and not even half of the party's regional-level groups participated. It's a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.

 Sebastian Nerz, currently second in command, has announced that he will not be running for office again. "Our biggest problem is that, aside from personal scandals, we can't seem to manage to communicate anything," he says.

Julia Schramm, another prominent party member in Berlin, likewise plans not to participate in the next election. Schramm angered many members of her party when her publisher took action against people downloading pirated copies of a book she had written -- which goes against the Pirate Party's anti-copyright stance.

The election in Schleswig-Holstein in May swept Pirate Party members into the state parliament who seem more like independent candidates than members of the same party, each pursuing an individual agenda. One, who also works as a customs official, tends to represent the interests of customs officials, while Angelika Beer, former national party chair for the Green Party, focuses on environmental policies just like in the old days. One party member Patrick Breyer, the Pirates' parliamentary group leader in Schleswig-Holstein. Breyer battles against government surveillance of any kind, from data storage to drones. He opposes Germany's strict address registration requirements and cell phone tracking. Not even fellow party members know precisely where Breyer lives, and he regularly switches out his cell phone's prepaid SIM card.

It seems that no-body in fact knows where the Pirate Party is located.

Adapted from Der Spiegel 

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