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In Germany, a ragtag Pirate Party raids politics

The upstart, whose theme is Internet freedom, has had a string of wins in state races. But critics are skeptical that the self-proclaimed freaks will go far.

June 08, 2012|By Aaron Wiener, Los Angeles Times
  • Marc Olejak pulls a cart to promote the Pirate Party in Duesseldorf, Germany, last month. Days later, he won a seat in the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
Marc Olejak pulls a cart to promote the Pirate Party in Duesseldorf, Germany,… (Oliver Berg, European Pressphoto…)

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.

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