• Pirates in Berlin – On the Success of the Piratenpartei in the Berlin State Parliament Elections

  • By Horst Kahrs | 08 May 12 | Posted under: Germany , Elections
  • One is on shaky ground if one tries to say something about the success and further prospects of the Pirate Party in Germany – because in Germany’s party landscape it is a new phenomenon, different from the other parties and now an occasion for all sorts of political projections. In short, they are freebooters: hard to grasp, a liquid phenomenon – it is not to be precluded that they will get into the next Bundestag, but it is to the same extent not to be precluded that their big electoral success in Berlin will remain an exceptional occurrence and that they will not enter any subsequent parliaments.

    The Piratenpartei Deutschland – “Pirates” – was founded on September 10, 2006 in Berlin. Their model was the Piratpartiet founded in Sweden in 2006. The Pirates see themselves “as a part of an international movement for co-shaping the transformation to the information society, expressed by them as the ‘digital revolution’”.1 In January 2008 they participated for the first time in a state parliament election. In the 2009 Bundestag election the Pirates got 2.0% of eligible votes. Among the 18 – 24-year-olds theire share was 9% (women 5%, men 12%); also among 25 – 34-year-old men they were over the 5% hurdle with 6%.

    In the 2010/2011 state parliament elections, the Pirates remained under the 5% hurdle and seldom got more than 2%. In Berlin, on the other hand, the Pirates, almost exactly five years after their founding, got 8.9% and in so doing achieved their first-time presence in a parliament.

    Where did the voters for the Piratenpartei come from in Berlin?

    Three groups can be discerned: voters who had already voted for “outsider” parties; voters from the centre-left-reformist spectrum of SPD-Greens-LINKE, which altogether form the largest group by far; and a small group of voters from the liberal-conservative spectrum. Two of 5 votes for the Pirates came from parties represented in the Berlin chamber of deputies; 3 of 5 came from persons who had not previously voted for a party represented in the chamber of deputies. Among men under 35 the party achieved 21%, and 12% among women of the same age. The results were also above average among people of 35 – 45. The Pirates got above-average results among people with higher-education diplomas (10%). Likewise above average were the proportions among workers (11%) and union-organised workers (14%), among employees (10 %), freelancers (14%) and among the unemployed (13%).

    The Pirates are not a programmatic party in the classical sense. Their political dynamic cannot be ascertained via their demands. The Pirates are a creature of cultural commonalities from the internet, a political attempt to sensitise, by means of the culture of the digital natives, the political system to certain areas of conflict, and at the same time to reform the relation of politics and citizens. As a whole, the Pirates represent cultural figures who have long been excluded and derided. They bring people from diverse political camps together. What unites them is the transformation of work and the everyday use of the internet. An intensive and authentic use of the internet is connected with organizational principles such as transparency, participation and equality.

    The Piratenpartei has succeeded in winning the votes of citizens on a broad basis beyond its original cultural milieu, citizens who in no way can be regarded as digital natives or “internet-oriented”. The heart of the Pirates’ electoral campaign was the attack on the established way of doing business of the political system, on the mode of politics. The Piratenpartei made the democratic mode of behaviour itself into a theme.

    “The Pirates speak simply with their electors, just as normal people do in everyday life. In so doing they contrast themselves to the permanent staging of politics”.2 Politics is a difficult business, for which reason it must be “mediated” through agencies and communication professionals to women and men?“On the contrary …. The success of the Pirates rests less on the internet and much more on what can be done with the internet: the production of direct connections” (Lobo). The Pirates do not shy away from dilettantism: “’I have no idea of this, but I’ll incorporate it’. In the language of everyday life, this sentence is the most honest and most constructive thing that one can say in the situation. Outside of the Piratenpartei it is not imaginable” (Lobo). Admitted ignorance has a more simpatico and even in the end more competent effect than unmasked ignorance. The “protest” of the Pirates voters was directed “against the ritualized artificiality of a politics whose communication has been reduced in the eyes of many citizens to talk shows, short utterances that play well on TV and news releases which are among the emptiest written things since the discovery of the Voynich manuscript”.3

    There are mainly three fields which the Pirates have offensively tilled: the utopia of a free knowledge order, the virtue of civil rights and democratic procedures.

    Democratisation of democracy

    For the Pirates, “democratisation of democracy” above all means: It is not the democratic system that is the problem but the way it is currently constituted. The Pirates’ essential project is here “the development of new forms of political participation as an answer to the smouldering crisis of representative democracy”.4 Alongside demands for more direct democracy and unconventional forms of participation, the technological support of participatory processes is at the centre. This involves well-known keywords like open data and open governance. More important still is their own work on the project liquid democracy or liquid feedback. This involves experimental participation software, which wants to open up the establishment of demands and positions for a broad participatory process that is also extra-parliamentary. The core thinking here is the implementation of the principle of delegation of the right to vote and of the “weighted vote”. Everyone should decide him/herself how much he/she wants to be informed and of his/her participation.

    In so doing the Pirates call two principles of the current party system into question: the model in which parties represent common interests of whole population strata; and the model of “identitarian organization, which wants to integrate the variety of political fields of action under a unitary programme to be as free of contradictions as possible”: “The members of the Piratenpartei have proven to be convinced that the variety of opinions and network-based mutual studies of other positions is the best means for working out political strategies”.5 Some things in fact speak for the idea that the Pirates have not only attracted dissatisfied voters because they are a new party, but also because they are another party.

    Informational integrity and self-determination 

    The second central area of the Pirates is the maintenance of informational integrity and self-determination against state surveillance and repression in a digitalised societal communication. The point of departure is the Basic Right to informational self-determination created in the 1980s by the Federal Constitutional Court. This tradition has a new explosiveness due to the conflicts around internet censorship, the struggle against data retention, electronic remuneration statements et alia. The concern for the “preservation of civil rights and freedom” includes differing positions. At present the “post-privacy” defenders are in the party minority. That and how this conflict will continue to be played out, will be more decisive for the further development of the Piratenpartei than the outcome of this debate.

    Opensource, open access, free culture, freedom of knowledge – these are central concepts of a new order in the internet, which have become the hallmarks of the Pirates. At the centre of this are the conditions of appropriation alongside of questions of copyright and patent law.

    Also here the position of the Pirates is not homogeneous. There are those who mainly stress “freedom of conditions of production” but stick with the basic thinking behind copyright and monetary gratification. The other position invokes the principle of “free knowledge” as the common heritage of humanity and rejects “intellectual property”, copyright or property-based software patents. Products of creative labour are understood as creative commons.

    Around this point the perhaps most exciting area of conflict in which the Pirates operate comes into view: “communism 3.0”. Since the 1980s, with the appearance of the internet, there has been a struggle over appropriation in the area of knowledge.

    In fact, through the appropriation by big companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple in the area of knowledge and culture, the central question for the future development of social relations of communications is “whether in the arena of knowledge, propertied, commercial valorisation or the idea of a free communal access to knowledge will establish itself”(Paetau). The Piratenpartei arose and developed its impact on this central point of conflict with a strong orientation to ideas of community.

    There are two essential underlying principles of the “pirate life” in ideas of community: the idea of free network formation, free communalisation in this or the other group and the idea of common goods, those goods that are common to all or which should be. In arenas such as education and knowledge, genetics and biology (seeds) or public infrastructure (water, energy) the Pirates have already shown their organic capacity to tie in to political confrontations and movements. In the Berlin electoral campaign other “commons” played this role in the cultural bridges to the “hard” issues of other parties: income, housing and transport. With basic income and ticketless local transportation the Pirates have appropriate political demands that require the social order to provide and protect elementary common goods. Such commons correspond to the socialisation and the mode of work and life of a part of those who were born in the 1970s and 1980s of the last century: a high degree of flexibility in the matter of work, working time and dwelling place requires certain basics, a specific provision of basic services. The demand for such a commons thus arises from the “dialectic of precariety”: Precarious modes of work and life are experienced as the normal case; the old social-state world of secured employees’ rights, the acquisition of social property through labour, has become a foreign, distant and not attainable world. In insecurity or flexibility there is a great potential for autonomy and self-determination, but also a great compulsion to compensate for the material, social and psychological burdens of overwork, irregular income and unlimited availability. In order to overcome the ongoing transformation of the world of work and life without dramatically rising social (social, health) costs it will be necessary to have recourse to certain common goods. Basic income is better suited to halfway conscious patchwork identities than the years-long building up of social-state claims on social security. One does not want more than this commons from the state and from society; one can take care of the rest better on one’s own. Together with the liberal-libertarian image of individual and society, with the Pirates there is a connecting of liberalism and socialism directed toward future digital communication with a high capacity for connecting to other social areas. Here they work as a social-liberal force in the positive sense.

    Future of the pirates

    The question of the future of the party is too early to ask. The further development of the Pirates will be determined by a contradiction: The Pirates come from the worlds of the internet and have come up against the limits of the institutional political world. All parties are forced to relate to the Pirates. Since behind the Pirates lies a cultural community whose borders are hard to comprehend there will not be able to be a tough exclusion strategy, rather there must be a positive reaction to the themes of the Pirates: network politics, participation, digital communication and social state.

    How will the Pirates position and assert themselves in struggles over redistribution policy? The answer to this will probably decide the Pirates’ future. “Share” and “commons” are if anything not the hard political currency which can alone satisfy voters. Among the Pirates’ weaknesses is that they presume the existence of common goods and are not (yet) thinking through how they are to be produced.

    At the moment the further development of the Pirates will be decided by the question of whether and how their fields of conflicts and issues can be asserted as independent conflicts. Network politics in the form of civil rights, also democracy, are social lines of conflict which political science places on the axis between libertarian and authoritarian value systems. Actually, these poles are occupied in the German party system. Therefore the Pirates could only be successful because “the established parties have neglected to take up in time the digital revolution and its problems”6 or admitted that this growing cultural world was quite foreign to them. This led to party-political exclusion of all who belong to the “deterritorial community”, for which network policy is a deciding factor in their political preferences. This gap was filled by the Pirates; it was seen as the legitimate political representation of this community. They will still be able to fill this gap for a while, since the established parties cannot simply make up for their failures through quickly passed resolutions.




    1) Oskar Niedermayer, “Erfolgsbedingungen neuer Parteien im Parteiensystem am Beispiel der Piratenpartei Deutschland”, in: Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen, No. 4/2010, p. 842.

    2)   Sascha Lobo, “Wo der Piratenschatz liegt” – www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/netzpolitik/ 0.1518.787354.00.html September 21, 2011, p. 3.

    3)   Ibid.

    4)   Felix Stadler, “Demokratie jenseits der Repräsentation“, in: ak – analyse und kritik, No. 565, October 21, 2011, p. 3.

    5)   Ibid.

    6)   Niedermayer, op. cit., p. 851.




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