In German 2012 Elections, Pirates Rule the Vote

In Germany, little seems to be more influential in politics than the countless local elections of the country. Each and every one of them has an impact on the federal level, and they happen often. Alone in 2012, three German states have already voted, and with some surprising results.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her liberal coalition partner FDP being on a downward spiral and her French friend Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency in doubt, could hardly have hoped for a pirate attack, let alone for one that is successful. Yet, voters have done just this to Merkel having given the Pirate Party (Piratenpartei) a solid 8.9 % in the 2011 Berlin elections. In March, the Pirates also achieved 7.4 % of the votes, making it the fourth strongest force in German state of Saarland’s parliament, while Merkel’s friends in the FDP came in with a pitiful 1.2 % of the vote. Today’s poll numbers are predicting 8% of the votes for the Pirates in the upcoming North Rhine Westphalia state elections. 

In German media, the Pirates are often portrayed as a group of chaotic nerds and scapegraces that waste their days online, and don’t think highly of personal hygiene. It’s a hard task to come across a reference of this young party that doesn’t label the party as nerds or slackers.

The picture drawn in the tiny and remote town of Neumünster (coincidentally located in Schleswig-Holstein, where elections are also occurring on Sunday), however, was supposed to be a different one. The Pirates set out to be serious. They wanted to make a step beyond victories that seem as if former FDP voters had simply switched from the FDP’s sour lemon yellow party color to the Pirates’ more pleasant tangerine orange color. And they wanted it without having to agree on positions that reach farther than the claim for absolute liberty within the online world. After all, it is the internet, largely neglected by Germany's big parties, that is this party's niche.

Last Sunday, 1,500 out of 24,000 members participated at what was supposed to be a "directly democratic" party conference. In the end it was little more than that.

But, the necessary party program was postponed to the fall, when 2012’s hot election phase is over. The farthest the Pirates went in making concrete policy decisions was to replace its party leader, Sebastian Nerz, who has not tried to distance the Pirates from right-wing extremist tendencies. The new captain in the Pirate boat now is Bernd Schlömer, whose sole motto is to make politics accessible for everybody.

Yet, without realizing political positions anytime soon the party will hardly be able to make politics accessible for a long time. It takes more than a wishy-washy demand for ultimate liberty in the online world and 24,000 different ideas of what the Pirates are or are not wont shake up German politics. Not even the German Green Party, once focused solely on environmental politics, was able to go on for long without clear positions on more than the environment, and now has a real party program. Similarly, the Pirates will eventually have a choice to make: Will they continue to profit from voters’ dissatisfaction with the ruling FDP coalition or will they draft a party program, take clear positions and become more than an anodyne hodgepodge of malcontents? The likelihood for a party to work without one seems to be rather small, especially when it is home to an army of fed up citizens.

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Teresa Maria Deubelli

Teresa is reading Politics, Law, and Economics at Sciences Po. Paris and at the University of Vienna.

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