After their success in Sunday's state election in Saarland, Germany's upstart Pirate Party has established politicians worried. Their next goal: the Bundestag.
"Make way for change!" The campaign slogan for Germany's Pirate Party recalls the buccaneer's battle cry of centuries past. And with that call to battle, the Pirates seem to have hit a nerve in Saarland. On Sunday, the party won 7.4 percent of the vote in regional elections in the southwestern state and will for the first time be represented by four seats in the state parliament.
The party rose to prominence by focusing their attention on issues dealing with Internet freedoms and the protection of personal data. "These are themes that have been neglected by the traditional parties," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
However, the Pirates are wary about being pigeonholed as simply a group of Internet activists. They want to be seen as a full-fledged political organization.
"In Germany, there is a need for a socially liberal party, and the people of Saarland have recognized that we are that party," Aleks Lessmann, a spokesman for the Pirate Party told DW.
The Pirates have only had a comprehensive political platform since December. Among their list of demands: an unconditional basic income for every citizen, the complete separation of church and state, and the legalization of all drugs. "We also back the right to free education and the protection of animals," said Lessmann. He admits that they have yet to develop a common position on economic and financial policy but says this is "on the way."
It's this directness, says Neugebauer, that is the secret of the Pirates' success. "They don't claim from the outset: 'We know everything. And if you don't understand, it's because you're stupid'," he said. "No, they say: 'We will learn together.'"
Founded in September 2006, the Pirate Party now has around 22,000 members nationwide. Their supporters are mostly under the age of 35, interested in Internet policy issues and are looking for an alternative to the established parties.
The party's top candidate in Saarland, Jasmin Maurer, is just 22 years old and communicates with fellow party members primarily through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. "You were brilliant," she tweeted after Sunday's election victory.
The Pirates trace their origins to Sweden. The party was founded there in January 2006 as a protest movement, in an attempt to reform copyright law. At the time, the Swedish prosecutor's office was targeting the file-sharing website Pirate Bay - where users swapped copies of music and films - after the entertainment industry claimed it was facing financial losses through illegal downloads.
Swedish activists founded the party to defend the site - and inspired an international movement. Soon after, branches began appearing in several European countries, including Germany, where the party first made a name for itself four years ago when it leaked files from the Bavarian Justice Ministry concerning the illegal surveillance of Internet telephone calls. Shortly thereafter, the party made headlines when it launched an online petition against Internet censorship.
Soon the party began winning seats in district and city councils. In the federal election in 2009, the Pirates took 2 percent of the vote, and in elections in Berlin in September they won their first seats at the state level.
Setting course for the federal government
In Sunday's election in Saarland, the party won significant support from young people - 23 percent of first-time voters ticked the Pirate box. But backers of the established parties were wooed away too. According to a survey by German public broadcaster ZDF, one-time supporters of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left party each accounted for 15 percent of the votes for the Pirates. Former backers of the Green Party made up 6 percent of the Pirates ' votes.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the CDU, has called the Pirate Party an important political force. "In the medium term, we need to adjust to the fact that they exist," said Andrea Nahles, the SPD's chairwoman.
But it's still too early to consider coalition talks. Cem Özdemir, co-head of the Green party, said first the Pirates need to show what they stand for.
"The other parties now have to reckon with us," said Lessmann. "I'm sure that in 2013, we'll move into the federal parliament."
Author: Friederike Schulz / cmk
Editor: Nancy Isenson