The Pirate Party surprised pollsters as well as the general public by procuring 15 seats in the Berlin parliament, following yesterday’s election. To win any seats, a political party has to obtain at least 5% of the vote in the election; the Pirate Party surpassed this total easily, reaching nearly 9% of the vote. To put this in perspective, Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, received only 2% of the vote and will not be allowed representation in the Berlin parliament. Despite its name, the Pirate Party is not simply a protest group. It is a serious political movement focused on individual rights to communication, particularly when it comes to the internet. The party does not identify itself as right or left, liberal or conservative. It is, however, anti-corporatist, and is especially opposed to corporations that seek monopolies in public communication.
Berlin has a special status under the German constitution as both a city and a state, and this is the first time the Pirate Party in Germany has obtained federal representation. Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democrats, took another electoral hit on Sunday, as its performance fell to 23% of the vote, behind its opposition and top vote-getter, the Social Democrats, at 29% of the vote. Prior to this election, the biggest success of the Pirate Party in Europe was in 2009, when it won two seats in the European Parliament.
Originally founded in Sweden in 2006, the Pirate Party now has political organizations in all European countries, as well as Canada, the United States, throughout Latin America, and in New Zealand and Australia. Last year Pirate Parties International (PPI) was formed to provide policy coordination and political and electoral assistance to all its members.
The movement began initially to promote file sharing and open data sourcing on the internet, but has expanded its scope to foster transparency in government and oppose any efforts to control or limit citizens’ rights to information. The founding party in Sweden, for example, has donated servers to Wikileaks. The policy statement of the PPI calls for the abolition of all national patent laws, which has put the Pirate Party firmly in the sights of multinational corporations that have obtained or seek to achieve monopolies in software, or which try to act as toll keepers to the flow of information on the internet.
It is estimated from the polling data that at least 15% of Berlin voters under the age of 30 voted yesterday for the Pirate Party. Even so, to achieve 9% of the overall vote, many more older voters had to provide their support as well. The media in Europe and elsewhere have generally ignored the Pirate Party, or treated it as a curiosity – a protest movement with a cute name. The growing success of the party in Europe suggests something different is going on. First, it is the only political movement with coordination across Europe; the Christian Democrats in Germany, for example, never coordinated their activities with the now defunct Christian Democrats in Italy. Second, the party has broken free of the left/right divide and allows voters to transcend their tribal loyalties or even reorder their loyalties to a completely different way of looking at politics.
To move beyond where it is at the moment, though, the Pirate Party will ultimately have to present policy positions on topics such as national defense, educational standards, housing, municipal services, economic growth, jobs, and other matters of vital interest to the voters. This may seem daunting at first for a party that appears narrowly focused on the internet and open communications, but the developments in Germany suggest the voters themselves may see the Pirate Party as able to provide some answers to their problems.
This is primarily because the Pirate Party sets itself clearly in opposition to large corporate interests, especially multinationals and major financial concerns, which are intimately involved in national defense, education, housing, etc. Donations from these companies to politicians often determine how these politicians vote, and one thing the Pirate Party in Germany has promised is to open the doors and windows on the back-scene deliberations that often take place before politicians vote. The electorate in Berlin, at least, appeared to respond to the Pirate Party’s vow to reveal what is going on behind closed doors.
There is also a libertarian appeal to voters who may now feel that the nexus of corporations and government has significantly limited individual rights and introduced authoritarian or even police state regimes in countries that used to pride themselves on their democratic freedoms. These issues in particular may resonate well in Germany. More than just about any European country, Germany has avoided a bloated state sector, it has maintained its export prowess, and its unemployment is not chronically high as is the case among its neighbors. But it also has a history of authoritarian governments, and half of the older voters have living memory of life under communism. German voters are more sensitive than most to the gradual erosion of their civil liberties – they know where this can lead.
Not every country is going to be as accommodating to an upstart political organization like the Pirate Party. The United States is locked into a two party system at the federal level by virtue of the Electoral College voting system. The Pirate Party has done best in electoral situations where multiple parties have a chance and few ever achieve over 50% of the vote at the first go-around. What it clearly represents is an effort by a growing number of voters to break free from the rigid left/right political split that in many circumstances offers no real choice to the voters. It represents as well an expression of concern if not fear of the role corporations play in the political system.
The Pirate Party stands on its head the notion that challenging the rule of corporations and the rights they have assumed to themselves at the expense of individuals is somehow an act of “piracy.” Those who vote for the party appear willing to be branded as pirates, as outlaws or brigands, if that is what it means to assert that individual freedoms and rights should never be subordinate to those of impersonal and often amoral corporate interests.