BERLIN, Germany — Bruno Kramm works a crowd dressed in an entirely black tuxedo and a crooked top hat resting on his orange hair. Around him, thousands of people in dreadlocks, T-shirts and thriftshop-chic attire wave signs and shout slogans.
They’re protesting internet surveillance ahead of national elections this week. It’s an issue Kramm hopes will propel him into parliament for the first time.
“None of us is a professional politician,” Kramm says of his organization, the Pirate Party. “That's the most charming thing about it.”
Kramm is fighting for a seat in the Bundestag from the prosperous southern region of Bavaria. But he may have already missed his best chance for election.
Observers say his party — founded to fight copyright restrictions and internet policing — has failed to capitalize on widespread unhappiness over state surveillance fuelled by revelations from the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. The party — which needs 5 percent of the vote to qualify for parliamentary seats — is currently polling at around 4 percent.
Voters are almost certain to return Angela Merkel as chancellor this week. But experts believe if the Pirate Party manages to squeak into parliament this time, it may make proceedings a little more interesting.
At the “Freedom Not Fear” protest against internet surveillance earlier this month, young Berliners wore mustachioed Anonymous masks and held cardboard television cameras over their heads along with placards reading “Free Chelsea Manning” and “Yes We Scan.”
Party members acknowledge their difficulties.
“We had a very big problem getting media attention during the NSA scandal,” says Cornelia Otto, a 39-year-old candidate from Berlin. “We had press meetings where just one journalist showed up.”
Even at the anti-surveillance rally, candidates from the Green Party and Die Linke (the Left) were stealing attention.
Although she voted for the Pirate Party in the last election, 45-year-old Rebecca Sommer says she’ll cast her ballot for another party this time despite her concerns about internet surveillance.
The Pirate Party “has a lack of knowledge on other issues that are important to me, like climate change,” she said.
In 2009, the party won 2 percent of the popular vote, thanks to young Germans' opposition to the country's strict controls on music and video file sharing. Subsequent successes in regional elections state elections, including almost 9 percent of the Berlin vote in 2011, raised hopes the party could get into the Bundestag this year.
Andreas Sperling, head of the polling firm Yougov in Germany, says surveys indicate younger voters show often feel misunderstood by the country’s main parties. “The Pirate Party represents a new and young politics, which was previously unknown in Germany,” he says.
It may be hard to imagine a party associated with a drive to legalize piracy becoming a player in national politics. But in the 1980s, the Greens were also a “crazy” single-issue party, notorious for stunts such as knitting in the parliament and showing up in sneakers to be sworn into the cabinet.
If the Pirates do make the Bundestag, it could be their turn to shake things up.
Besides its drive to liberalize the country's copyright policy — which currently allows third-party agencies to sue kids who spend a few minutes downloading songs — the party advocates guaranteeing minimum basic incomes for all citizens and allowing all residents, not just registered citizens, to vote.
The party has already leveraged its members' expertise with technology to implement innovations in direct democracy, such as enabling people to vote for or against policies on the party platform in the style of the internet social news site Reddit.
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Still, that hasn’t been enough to break the perception of the Pirates as a single-issue party.
James Davis of Switzerland's University of St. Gallen says despite its innovations, the party hasn’t shown much ability to run a national campaign.
“Where do they stand on questions of the economy, Europe and foreign affairs?” he says. “Most voters simply don't know.”