How Germany’s Pirates might sink the mainstream parties

The recent electoral success for the Pirate Party highlights the inability of the major parties to inspire voters.

Matthias Heitmann

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Germany’s Social Democrats and Greens are worried. Due to the emergence of the Pirate Party, opinion polls suggest – for the first time in a while and just two years before the next General Election – that the two parties would be unable to win an electoral majority between them, despite the unpopularity of the current Christian Democrat-led government. According to a report in a German tabloid, Bild am Sonntag, support for the Pirate Party has reached seven per cent nationwide, taking a sizeable chunk of support away from the main opposition parties.

The rise of the Pirates is surprising to many, including the Pirates themselves, but just a few weeks ago they made it into Berlin’s regional parliament for the first time. It seems that the previously fringe party – whose platform is built on the rejection of online regulation and the support of internet privacy – was swept up in a whirlwind of votes and then catapulted into public view. The party leaders have themselves admitted to having a narrow platform and to being weak on other issues.

One week after the Berlin elections, the Pirate Party stall in Frankfurt was still handing out leaflets that were completely obsolete. They were criticising the government for its continued support for nuclear power, even though ministers had already announced that all German plants will be shut down by 2022. The speed of the Pirates’ rise has been so extraordinary that even their own campaigners have failed to keep up. In fact, supporters seemed to expect the party’s election results to be just as unremarkable as they had been in the past few years. The party’s first small success was in the 2009 General Election, where it won two per cent of the votes, and clearly expectations were that the party would not improve much upon those ratings.

It was this humble and unassuming attitude which seemed to win the Pirates favour among the electorate. The September elections in Berlin showed that all of the major parties are struggling to convey a positive image. They tried to distinguish themselves from the young, internet-savvy political novices by being more serious, while at the same time trying to be appealing. But their enthusiastic smiling just didn’t come across as convincing, particularly in the case of the Greens.

The advance of the Pirate Party certainly doesn’t give the major parties anything to celebrate. While the extreme right’s occasional electoral successes have in some ways been politically useful – allowing mainstream politicians to contrast themselves favourably with racist buffoons from the margins of society – the success of the Pirate Party cannot simply be explained away by saying it’s a symptom of social exclusion or ignorance. The supporters of the new party are anything but on the margins – they are highly educated and media savvy. And above all, they are young and in a position to attract like-minded individuals in cities all over the country. To a certain extent, they represent the future elite of Germany. For mainstream-party strategists, realising that they are unable to connect with this section of society must come as a kick in the teeth.

But the Pirate Party victory is a blow for the elite in another way, too. It shows that the established parties have to do more than just encourage people to queue up like sheep outside polling booths. In Berlin, the Pirates brought 21,000 extra voters to the polls, the first increase in turnout in years. The old rule that a high turnout at the polls automatically favours the major parties over smaller parties no longer holds true. This could backfire on the Social Democrats and the Greens: until the Berlin elections they were quite confident they would be able to kick Chancellor Angela Merkel out of office in two years’ time. However, the success of the Pirates and the failure of talks to form a coalition for the Berlin city government might scupper these dreams.

The fossilisation of the major parties will become even more apparent in the future. The historic mission of the Pirate Party could be to show that the widespread disillusionment with these bodies will soon also be irreversible. Achieving any more than this seems unlikely, however – the Pirates lack the clear sense of political direction necessary to transform politics.

Instead, the Pirates are riding a wave of popularity with no political agenda. This popularity actually springs from people’s disdain for the major parties, with the Pirates becoming the beneficiaries of their opponents’ political disarray and disconnection. In the long term this strategy doesn’t bode well for the party’s survival. After all, there is no shortage of parties like the Pirates lacking a sense of direction or purpose these days.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and an editor at Novo-Argumente. Visit his website here.

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