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Arrrgh! Pirate party takes Berlin

Hoody-wearing hackers unexpectedly become legislators.

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Members of the German Pirate Party sail on the River Spree during a "campaign rally" in Berlin on September 25, 2009, two days ahead of parliamentary elections on September 27, 2009. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — They arrived at Berlin's imposing parliament building, mostly wearing hoodies and sneakers, carrying orange pirate flags, the symbol of their party.

As they tried to enter the city-state’s legislature the day after their historic win, a stern woman at the security desk told them, "nein," those party symbols are strictly "verboten."

And so began the first day of the Pirate Party's newly changed status as legislators, after an unexpected election result that has shaken up the staid world of German politics.

The band of internet-freedom activists shocked themselves and pretty much everyone else when they won close to 9 percent in the Berlin state election on Sept. 18, allowing them to send 15 very unconventional new politicians to the regional parliament.

And a recent opinion poll gave the Pirates 7 percent nationally, enough to make it into the federal parliament.

A week after their Berlin triumph, however, it was clear the astonishment had not worn off. They hadn't prepared to win or to take office.

Awkwardness has ensued, even on the part of the fledgling parliamentarians.

"My wife was not amused," said new Pirate lawmaker Pavel Mayer.

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The long-haired 46-year-old started a software business earlier this year, ploughing his savings and pension into the company. Now he, along with three of his employees in the tiny company, will have to take time off work to serve in parliament.

Mayer says he will hire new staff but hopes to juggle both jobs for the moment. Having already worked crazy hours during the campaign, he said he's used to it: “When the things you do are fun, then you don’t mind spending many hours on it.”

The new party was founded in 2006, an offshoot of the Swedish party of the same name. Its original platform involved focusing on data protection, file-sharing and censorship. It has expanded that to include a range of social issues and demands for increased transparency and citizen participation. The party's average member is 29 years old.

The Pirates are determined to set an example in the Berlin parliament. In general, the impression they've made since their surprise Berlin triumph is one of exuberant chaos. At their very first meeting as a parliamentary group, the 14 men and one woman were already openly bickering over whether or not future meetings should be streamed to the public or held behind closed doors. Many argued that meeting in private would betray their pledge to radical transparency during the campaign.

It took them another week of arguments and deliberations to elect a parliamentary floor leader. In the end, the post went to Andreas Baum, the fresh-faced electrical engineer who headed their highly successful and irreverent election campaign. His laid-back attitude went down well with younger voters, unperturbed when he stumbled over thorny issues like how much debt Berlin currently has. When asked on a TV show, he guessed “many millions of euros.” The true amount is €63 billion.

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Many supporters are hoping that the young, tech-savvy crew will bring a breath of fresh air to stuffy German politics. Others wonder if they will change the system — or if the system will change or even eradicate them.

Even so, their lack of political nous is actually part of their appeal — if not their very purpose.

“That is exactly what they say they want,” said Christoph Bieber, professor of political science at the University of Duisburg. “Not to decide things hierarchically; to listen to every voice; and to really react to what is said and to include that in their work. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the new situation.”

The party has dubbed their approach “liquid democracy,” whereby citizens can directly influence the politics from the bottom up. Using a computer program called “Liquid Feedback,” party members can submit motions online. Proposals are then voted on. If enough members back them, then the executive committee has to adopt it. The party’s election manifesto in Berlin was created using the program.

Although the party is hoping to change things, the danger is that they will lose their edge as they get sucked into professional politics, says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “The pirates can