In Germany, a ragtag Pirate Party raids politics

DUESSELDORF, Germany — All his colleagues call him Grumpy, and he says he’d “rather be playing computer games.” On election day recently, the German typesetter wore a black Stetson over his long, stringy hair.

On that same day, Marc Olejak earned a new name: member of parliament, in Germany’s most populous state for the misfit Pirate Party.

The party’s core voters are “the nerds, the freaks — not to discriminate, but the people who see themselves this way — and the marginal groups,” the 40-year-old Olejak said as voters were going to the polls. As he spoke, he was chain-smoking outside the grungy Zakk club in an industrial part of his native Duesseldorf, on a street that was occupied by the militant left-wing Red Army Faction in the 1970s.

Just a year ago, the Pirates, with a central campaign theme of Internet freedom, were considered a fringe party and had never made it even halfway to the 5% of the vote threshold needed to enter a statehouse. But with last month’s election, which gave them nearly 8% of the vote here in the crucial state of North Rhine-Westphalia, they have now won seats in four consecutive statehouse races.

“This is a huge step for us, a great showing,” Bernd Schloemer, the national party chairman, said outside a victory celebration. “One can hardly comprehend it.”


All eyes are now on federal elections late next year. And if national surveys are any indication — the 6-year-old party is averaging more than 10% of support in recent polls — this ragtag band of “freaks” is likely to find itself in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s national Parliament.

“We’re a party to be taken seriously in Germany,” Schloemer said. “The other parties know that now.”

Olejak is in many ways an uber-Pirate. He makes no attempt to blend in, with other politicians or with average Joes. He wore a number of rings and lapel pins bearing the Pirates’ ship-mast logo on election day, and has been known to campaign pulling a handmade wooden boat with an orange “Pirate Party” sail.

Like many Pirates, Olejak was not politically active before he joined the party in 2009. He was attracted to the Pirates by a sense of frustration with politics as usual.

“I’m a typesetter, and as part of my job … I read and corrected the entire Green Party electoral platform for purely professional reasons,” he said. Referring to the coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, he said, “And everything that red-green did afterward, or a large part of it, was not at all what they’d said in their platforms.”

Exit polls showed that two-thirds of Pirate supporters in the state cast their votes out of dissatisfaction with the other parties. Many were young first-time voters and those who otherwise would not have voted.

Yet the election results also demonstrated the breadth of the Pirate coalition. According to exit polls, the party won 90,000 votes from people who had backed the center-left Social Democrats and 60,000 from onetime supporters of the center-right Christian Democrats. The partyers at Zakk were overwhelmingly male, but represented every age, socioeconomic background and ideology on the traditional left-right spectrum.

Olejak says critics are missing the point when they pigeonhole the Pirates as “merely” an Internet party.

“Even if, hypothetically, we were just an Internet party — which we’re not — well, look at this one single issue and ask yourself, ‘Where is the Internet not a component of everyday life these days?’” he said. “It’s a connected world. It runs through every area of daily life, from our work to management of our activities up until death.”

He contends that the Pirates’ Web focus no longer appeals just to gamers and programmers, but to people from all walks of life who seek a new approach to politics. At the core of the Pirates’ operation is a program called Liquid Feedback that allows all party members to propose and vote on ideas and thereby shape the party’s platform.

For some, this form of direct democracy may be particularly appealing because of timing. The rise of the Pirates is happening at a time when many of the European Union’s most important, and expensive, decisions are being made by technocrats in Brussels.

But it also can produce an uncoordinated and patchwork approach to policymaking. The party platform contains certain bold proposals, including free public transportation and a guaranteed basic income for all Germans, but makes no mention of major issues of the day such as the European debt crisis.

And despite their growing popularity, the Pirates’ future in German politics is uncertain. Critics point out the structural problems of a party that lets its thousands of rank-and-file members make the decisions.

“Looking at the Pirates, we can now observe what happens when personnel weakness is combined with a lack of content,” Volker Beck of the Green Party, which has lost some of its young voters to the Pirates, told Der Spiegel magazine recently. “Meaningful debates seem to drown in their own Liquid Feedback.”

The Pirates’ heady rise has come with growing pains. The party’s openness to all political persuasions led to revelations that several members were formerly active in the far-right National Democratic Party, including one Pirate leader in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. And the lack of message discipline stirred outrage after a senior Pirate compared his party’s rapid rise to that of the Nazis.

The absence of coordination among the Pirates has even led to sartorial disagreements. When asked whether Pirates should be wearing suits to work as other politicians do, Schloemer, who works in the Defense Ministry and wore a blazer on election day, emphasized the need to be taken seriously. Olejak, on the other hand, sneered, “Whoever these days, in 2012, gets worked up about clothing or about shoes clearly lives in an earlier age.”

Perhaps most daunting for the Pirates is basic parliamentary etiquette. They are all new to the business of governing, and their rookie excitement shows.

“None of us has ever served in a parliament,” Daniel Duengel, one of the newly elected representatives. “I think it’ll be awesome.”

But that means that they’re likely to get tangled up in the procedural complexities of their work.

On election day last month, after the preliminary election results were announced, the new representatives headed down to the statehouse and immediately had what Olejak called “our first fail.”

“It turns out we were allowed to enter the hall, but not to sit down,” he said.

But Olejak shrugged off the challenges of learning parliamentary protocol.

“The Pirates are quite good at that,” he said. “It’s all just like programming. It’s simply a source code.”

Wiener is a special correspondent.