Europe's Pirate Parties Prepare to Board Ballots

Every other Monday, Sebastian Schneider dons a skull-and-crossbones bandana, plants an orange flag outside Café Canto in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, and holds court with his crew of pirates. "Ahoy," he says as they sit down with their pilsners. But instead of discussing treasure along the Spanish Main, they talk politics: Chancellor Angela Merkel's latest speech, recent legislation against online child porn, and the prospects for the Sept. 27 national elections. Simon Lange, the crew's secretary, takes notes on a sleek black netbook. Because these pirates aren't planning to hijack commercial frigates; they're planning a takeover of German politics.

Schneider, a 24-year-old TV producer, and his crew—one of dozens across Berlin—are the grassroots base of a political phenomenon sweeping through Europe: Pirate parties. Concentrating on Internet privacy, copyright reform, and online freedom of speech, pirate parties have recently gained official recognition, public office, and tons of newspaper ink in 10 countries, most notably Germany and Sweden (where they are the third-largest party in terms of membership). The Pirates haven't reinvented European politics just yet, but historians and political observers are beginning to see them as a modern-day iteration of the Green parties that changed the face of European governance a generation ago.

During an election that most Germans consider the most boring in the republic's history, the Pirates have clearly struck a chord. In an August poll by the respected Forsa Institute, 84 percent of respondents said they didn't care who won the election, while in another Forsa poll 18 percent said they could see themselves voting for Horst Schlämmer, the fictional head of a fictional party concocted by the comedian Hape Kerkeling. And the apathy is about more than just this election: 91 percent of Germans voted in the 1972 election, while only 78 percent voted in 2005.

Such disillusionment is rife across the generations, but nowhere more so than among Germany's young voters—yet another Forsa poll found that 50 percent of voters between 18 and 29 distrusted both leading parties. "Many young people are angry that the five main parties don't take them and their issues seriously," said Markus Beckedahl, an Internet strategy consultant and one of Germany's most prominent political bloggers. The Pirate Party recently attracted tens of thousands to a demonstration in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, complete with DJs spinning between campaign speeches. Campaign posters seem to hang from every streetlamp in Berlin. Germany is seeing "the awakening of the Internet generation's political consciousness," noted Die Zeit. "The motor of this new movement is the Pirate Party."

While it's unlikely that the Pirate Party will end up in Germany's Parliament, the Bundestag, after Sunday's elections—parties have to win at least 5 percent to grab a seat, and the Pirates are expected to poll between 1 and 2 percent—it is already the seventh-largest party in Germany, behind the Greens. A poll by StudiVZ (a student-only social network) of its members gave the pirates 48 percent of their vote.

Europe's Pirate parties started forming just three years ago in response to anti-Internet piracy laws (hence the name). But as they expanded their focus to include other aspects of life online, their membership—and poll numbers—exploded. In June, the Swedish Pirate Party won 7.1 percent of the national vote and, with it, a seat in the European Parliament. This year, the German version has been racking up city-council seats across the country. "We're the only party concerned with the information society," Schneider says.

The Pirates are, at heart, left-leaning libertarians—they want to get government monitors off the Internet and reform copyright laws to allow file-sharing and copying. They oppose biological patents and call for greater government transparency. And they propose vastly increasing educational spending, particularly in IT-related fields, as well as a new Internet ministry that would coordinate the federal government's online activities. Schneider, like most Pirates, says that without his party he would probably back the Greens or the Social Democrats, but "we're really not for left-right politics. These old ideological fights don't work for us."

That said, the Pirates have yet to take a position on important issues outside their niche focus, be it Germany's deployment in Afghanistan or the government's stimulus program. That will be a hindrance in attracting voters outside their core of supporters. And there is a risk that the Pirates, after this initial flush of interest, could recede into the ranks of Germany's many "small parties," joining the likes of the Animal Protection Party and the New Age-style Violet Party as stable political groups that are nevertheless too small to enter the Bundestag.

Then again, the excitement the party stirs among young voters points to a potential to be much more. Like the Green Party of their parents' generation, the Pirates represent not just a frustration with establishment policies, but with the very way it communicates with voters: Germans are as Internet savvy as anyone—70 percent have Web access, 3 million have Facebook accounts, and 250,000 have Twitter accounts—but their politicians aren't. While the leading parties all go through the motions of online campaigning, they still see the Web as an advertising tool, not as a way to build a movement. "The Internet just isn't taken seriously as a part of social life," says Beckedahl.

While the Pirates, like most young Germans, pine for a Web-savvy politician like Obama, their real model is the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. Like them, his initial supporters rallied around one issue—his antiwar position. And like them, the campaign grew organically and diffusely—and cheaply—thanks to early social-networking technologies like Meetup and YouTube. Those technologies also allowed the grassroots to retain a certain amount of control, even as Dean became a serious candidate, which kept them from feeling alienated from the campaign—something Dean wisely exploited, and something the Pirates hope to recreate in Germany.

That's mainstream thinking in the United States, but it's still alien to Germany's political establishment. In fact, both leading parties—the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Christian Democrats—have made political hay by rallying against the darker side of the Internet, recently passing a law to ban access to Web sites accused of trafficking in child pornography. To the parties and their supporters, it's a sensible way to protect the nation's youth. But to the Pirates, along with hundreds of thousands of Germans who signed an official petition against the law—gathering 134,000 signatures in three and a half days, the largest ever submitted to the Bundestag—it is the overbearing first step toward unchecked online censorship.

"The Internet is an increasingly important part of people's lives, but the main parties push laws that restrict its freedom," says Beckedahl. "They protect corporate interests but not those of the online citizens."

If the Pirates one day ascend to the Bundestag, it won't be the first time a youth-led niche party revolutionized German politics. After all, the Green Party, which ruled in coalition with the center-left Social Democrats for eight years and claims the support of about 10 percent of voters, also started out as a one-note movement led by previously apolitical hippies, including an itinerant cab driver named Joschka Fischer.

When Fischer took the oath of office as a Bundestag member in 1983, he did so wearing a pair of worn-out sneakers, a signal of contempt for the old rules and the beginning of a new era. Sitting at Café Canto chatting with Schneider, it was hard not to wonder: Will he one day be in the same spot, taking the oath of office in a skull-and-crossbones bandana?