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Arrrgh! Pirate party takes Berlin

Hoody-wearing hackers unexpectedly become legislators.

compensate for this by really building on this liquid democracy and implementing it internally," he said. "This way of communicating, not from the top down but horizontally, could be a good way of combating this danger.”

In the huge lobby of Berlin’s grand parliament building, Susanne Graf, at 19 now the youngest member of parliament, said the party will have to in some way adapt to the system, adhering to the rules and acting properly. “We aren’t going to go running through the corridors screaming,” she said. “But if we insist that we have our issues, that they are important to us, then we can change the way we behave to a certain extent.”

In addition to her new ID for the parliament, Graf has just picked up her brand-new student card. She is slated to study mathematical economics beginning this month, but will have to arrange with her lecturers how to combine her work as a politician with her studies.

“I know it’s going to be tough,” she said.

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As Graf and Mayer learn the ropes, the other political parties are scrambling to analyse how much of a threat this unknown entity poses. The Greens are particularly alarmed. The environmentalists, who 30 years ago were the new non-conformist rebels on the block, are increasingly regarded as part of the establishment. The Greens lost the most voters to the Pirates, with 17,000 switching to the new party in Berlin.

Gesine Agena, Green Party youth wing spokesperson, said the party is looking at where it went wrong and how it can win back the voters.

“I don’t think it was just about the internet. I would say it is about the fact that they had lots of catchy themes, and a campaign that spoke to young people.” Campaign pledges – legalizing cannabis, improving Berlin’s education system, making public transport free and establishing a basic minimum wage — had a lot of appeal. They made the Pirates seem “cool, young and fresh,” she said.

Agena worries that the Pirates could continue to take votes away from the Greens and the center-left Social Democrats in the 2013 federal election, affecting the formation of the next government. “You have to take them seriously as a party. You can’t just expect them to go away.”

Mayer says the party’s appeal is that completely normal people appeared to be standing for election. “Not political professionals, who have learned to be smooth and say nothing when speaking to the media," he said. "I believe people don’t want that any more. There is a huge desire to see real people in politics.”

Not everyone agrees. Those “real people” looked very much like a gang of mostly white males when they appeared in front of the media after the Berlin vote. A major criticism of the party has been the lack of women or minorities as candidates.

Graf says she thinks it’s a pity that she is the only woman who ran (another female candidate dropped out). “There are a lot of really competent women in the party but they didn’t want to go forward, and if they don’t want to you can’t force them,” she said.

The party has also received flak for having a flimsy platform, more interested in the form than the content of democracy. For example, there's little clarity as to how exactly they would pay for their many attractive-sounding pledges.

Graf said that for a party that is just five years old, its program is actually very comprehensive. “Naturally there are areas where we are lacking, for example, economic policy, but we always said that we would only speak about things that we know something about."

Mayer points out that the party has had to come up with their program without any paid staff. And he argued that whatever its deficits, the party is full of exceptionally bright young people who learn more quickly and more efficiently than those in other parties. 

“We don’t have a lot of money, but we use a lot of modern tools, and we are used to exchanging opinions quickly on the internet and organizing.”

With their new high profile, there is now enormous pressure on the rookie troupe to do well in Berlin.

“The pressure is not just from within Germany,” Graf said. “It’s from across the world. We have Pirate parties in 44 countries, including the US.”

“If we blow it, then we can’t just say it was the Berliners who messed up," she added. "That's why we really have to make a huge effort.”

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