The upstart Pirate Party snagged almost one in 10 votes in Berlin's recent ballot, and the tech-savvy newcomers are setting their future targets. Priority one: more transparent government - with or without the Pirates.
The Pirate Party has already laid claim to 15 seats in Berlin
According to current opinion polls, roughly eight percent of German voters would support the country's new tech-savvy Piratenpartei, or Pirate Party, if elections were held now. These are uncharted waters for German politics and the Pirates alike, who are now seeking to add a more substantive side to their sudden success.
Three of the Pirate's leading lights - with an average age of 28 - faced the press in Berlin on Wednesday to outline future policies and strategies for the young, tech-savvy group.
According to party leader Sebastian Nerz, the meeting was a chance to "clear up a few misunderstandings," starting with telling journalists how to refer to the party in German: "Piratenpartei: no hyphen, written as one word, without quotation marks."
"We are not a party that promotes free copying of information above all else," Nerz said of his Pirate Party. "We are a socio-liberal party for basic rights. We want to fundamentally change the style of politics."
The Pirates are a national branch of a political movement that first emerged in Sweden five years ago, and though they are trying to broaden their agenda and policy ideas, their prime target remains a more transparent system of politics, enabled by the Internet.
"We are the generation who grew up with the Internet, it formed our way of thinking," party manager Marina Weisband, a 24-year-old psychology student, told Deutsche Welle. "We feel that we want to participate because we can. We want a free society, a society of knowledge and education. We want everybody to be free as long as he doesn't hurt the freedom of others, and we want freedom of information."
A sixth, or fifth, mainstream party
These top party members, with an average age of 28, say they want the public to help them with policy
Weisband says the party's ranks have swelled to roughly 14,000 on the back of their election success in Berlin's recent state election, in which the Pirates secured almost nine percent of the vote. A national poll released early on Wednesday morning put their nationwide support at eight percent.
Asked if he thought his party would establish itself as the sixth major player in German politics, Nerz quipped: "Perhaps it will stay at five parties after all." Nerz was referring to the plunging popularity of Germany's junior coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, whose public support is listed at just three percent - below Germany's five-percent threshold required to guarantee parliamentary representation - in the same poll.
The Pirates are sometimes criticized for being a political "one-trick pony," playing to their Internet-based strengths while avoiding some of the larger political issues of the day. Nerz confessed that his party hadn't adopted a firm position, for instance, on how to deal with the Greek debt issue, but added that the same could be said of Germany's other mainstream parties.
They encourage more public input and participation in such decision-making processes.
"I think major decisions have to be made on a base of basic democracy," Weisband said. "Or liquid democracy, which is even better because not every citizen can say something about building a house, but he can say his opinion and that's important, and he should get to say it all the time. So we need to find new solutions, which I think lie in the Internet."
The Pirate Party uses software which they call "Liquid Feedback" to help influence their policy decisions. Party members converse on issues online and seek a majority stance on solutions or ideas mooted in this discussion forum. Weisband said that the party leaders would gratefully accept any help from interested citizens who felt they had a solution to a given policy position.
"If someone's sitting in their living room right now thinking, 'That's an area I know a lot about, I can contribute there,' then that's wonderful," she said.
'Get ready for change,' they say
The group says that the world has outgrown the old left-versus-right debates in politics, but the Pirate Party has nailed more left-leaning colors to its mast when it comes to the provision of social services - with a free short-distance public transport system among existing policy suggestions. They also categorically reject any contact with either far-right or far-left parties in Germany, saying that it's the political mainstream which they are seeking to change.
Seeking change, as reacting agent or catalyst
"We aren't looking for power in Germany, we are looking for change. We want to change society, we want to change the style of politics," Weisband told Deutsche Welle. "If we have to be in the government to do that then we will. But if the other parties change right now because they fear us, we'd be glad to see that."
The two changes closest to the Pirate Party's heart can both be found online, though they might seem a little counterintuitive to some. Firstly, the group argues that government regulation of the Internet should not be permitted and does more harm than good. On the other hand, business' abilities to use, buy and sell the personal data of individuals online should be curtailed - with the party pointing to social networking giant Facebook as a high-profile offender in this area.
Weisband wrote on her Twitter account before facing the media on Wednesday morning, with more than a hint of trepidation in her tone. "I'm just realizing that I'm still rather more of a student than a politician," she confided to her over 2,000 followers, just an hour after saying, "At this point, might I say that I'm almost dying of nerves."
Germany's political newcomers - who are about to take up their 15 seats in Berlin's state parliament - might need to acclimatize themselves to the main political stage and to more probing questions about their policies if they can continue to outperform the Free Democrats and run Germany's Left party close in national polls.
And for all their claims of inexperience and political youth, the Pirate Party's leaders are already mastering the art of side-stepping tricky questions. Party leader Sebastian Nerz, for example, said that the issue of potential coalitions in government - an issue that might yet be raised in Berlin as the Social Democrats and Greens stumble in their negotiations - "is a question that has not yet arisen." When pressed further, Nerz did say that he could imagine it being discussed in time for Germany's general election in 2013.
Author: Uwe Hessler, Berlin / msh
Editor: Nancy Isenson