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After the Hype, What's Next for the German Pirate Party?

BY Jon Worth | Friday, January 18 2013

German Pirate Party supporters at 2009 demonstration (credit: Piraten/Flickr)

To explain the transformation of people's interaction with a new technology, Gartner coined the term “hype cycle”. After its initial invention, the new tool sees a peak of hype, followed by a trough of disillusionment, and finally a plateau of productivity.

But can the same experience be seen in a technologically-savvy political party? For that is exactly what seems to be happening to the Pirate Party in Germany.

While political party labels come and go in European countries, most parties can nevertheless draw on the history of predecessors on the left-right axis. Not the Pirate Party. One of the better known spin-offs of the party originally founded in 2006 , the German version burst into the mainstream in the Berlin state elections 14 months ago. The party favors a free Internet, transparency in politics, and participatory democracy, making it hard to place on the left-right spectrum. Initial hype, especially among the young and predominantly male electorate of the Pirates was hence palpable; for the first time a political party that seemed to speak for such people.

In Berlin the party polled 8.9 percent, making it the fifth largest party in the state government. This pattern has been repeated in elections Saarland (March 2012), Schleswig-Holstein, and Nordrhein-Westfalen (both May 2012). Yet from that point, and even polling at up to 10 percent nationally at one point, the party has slumped back in the polls. The Pirates are currently languishing at around 3-4 percent, a level that would not even get them into the German National Parliament, the Bundestag, at the autumn 2013 elections. In the state elections in Niedersachsen on Sunday they are not likely to pass the 5 percent threshold to get into the state parliament.

Views about the Pirates' predicament vary. Markus Beckedahl, a prominent net politics activist who writes about civil liberties and online privacy on his widely read Netzpolitik blog, believes that part of the problem lies with the poor quality of the members of parliament the Pirates have brought in and the limited impact they have had since their election. A second problem is that the party airs all its dirty laundry in public, something that traditional parties keep away from the prying eyes of the press. (Beckedahl, it should be said, is not of the piratical party persuasion.)

Such issues are to be expected though, according to Martin Haase of the Berlin Pirates. Haase holds no formal role, and even is happy to describe himself as a party politics sceptic. That said, thanks to the participatory decision making system Liquid Feedback, Der Spiegel ranks him the most influential Pirate in the party. Haase, a professor of linguistics at the University of Bamberg, does not see the Pirates' descent in the polls as a problem. He attributes the higher numbers to initial hype.

Both Haase and Beckedahl speak about the complicated relationships among groups of members in the party. Beckedahl sees tensions between three separate generations of members within the still young party: the net nerds who joined before 2009, the transparency activists who jumped aboard between 2009 and 2011, and the latest membership burst since 2011 whose emphasis has more been on building an Occupy-style social movement. Germany is unique in this regard in Europe; there, the imperative to create an alternative social movement found its place within party politics. Elsewhere in Europe, many of those latter-day Pirates' fellow-travelers elected to remain outside the system.

So what next for this nascent party?

There is a consensus both inside and outside the Pirates that if the party applies itself, then getting into the Bundestag, should still be possible. The quest for the national prize should mean greater discipline among the factions is Beckedahl's view, and with the party ranks now swelled by members with previous experience in other parties, the quality of the candidates should be higher nationally than seen at the state level thus far.

What then of the other parties? Have they upped their game in face of the rise of the Pirates? Here Haase is rather critical, both in terms of other parties' scope to transform internally or to take net politics questions seriously. In the SPD, Germany's leftist Social Democratic Party, net politics is given greater weight among younger politicians than it was (it is a way to profile yourself, according to Beckedahl). But the resolute determination of the SPD's candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, to refuse to engage online shows how much work remains to be done. The Greens, previously the anti-establishment party, are putting forward the conservative and religious Katrin Göring-Eckardt as candidate for Chancellor in 2013. According to Haase this decision vindicates the need for the Pirates to be present in German party politics.

So the peak of hype for the Pirates is very much over. But with hard work between now and autumn 2013, seats in the Bundestag remain very much in reach. Now that would be a genuine plateau of productivity — a net politics party in the parliament of Europe's most populous country.

Jon Worth is a social media strategist and EU analyst.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.