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Pirates into parliament: Transforming German politics

By Monika Merkes - posted Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Guardian has called them an “upstart band of internet freedom activists.” The New York Times has likened them to “Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.” They mean the German Pirate Party, which has attracted 8.9 per cent of the vote for the Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus, the state parliament of Berlin. All 15 candidates on their list won seats in the 18 September 2011 election.

The centre-left Social Democrats received the most votes (28.3 per cent), while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), with only 1.8 per cent of votes didn’t make it into the Berlin Parliament. The Christian Democrats (CDU) got 23.4 per cent of the vote, and the Green Party 17.6 per cent.

Germany’s proportional representation system makes it easier for small parties to gain seats in parliament than the preferential voting system in Australia. In Germany, a party will make it into parliament if it secures at least 5 per cent of the vote.


Elections were also held for the Bezirksverordnetenversammlung (BVV) for the 12 districts of Berlin. In these local government council’s members of the Pirate Party got 56 seats. Some of the seats will stay empty, because several Pirate Party members stood for parliament and the BVV and must now decide which role to accept.

The German Pirate Party was founded in 2006 and is part of an international movement of pirate parties that started in Sweden. Australia too has a pirate party. The political platform of the German Pirate Party is concerned with issues such as online privacy, data protection, civic participation, citizens’ rights and the protection of whistleblowers. The Pirate Party calls for complete transparency in politics.

Liquid democracy”, a mix between direct and indirect political representation, is a concept the German Pirate Party wants to explore. In a liquid democracy environment, an individual can determine where on the continuum between direct and indirect political representation they wish to participate.

For instance, this could mean that for issues of taxation I’m happy to be represented by political party ‘A’, for decisions concerning the environment I’m represented by political party ‘B’, for health policy decisions I want to be represented by expert ‘C’, and on transport policies I want to vote directly. This delegation, or proxy vote, is temporary and can be revoked at any time. The term “liquid” refers to the flexible process of delegation that is implemented electronically. The German Pirate Party is working on an Internet platform to test liquid democracy.

A telephone survey one week prior to the elections and on election day found that the Pirate Party is particularly popular with people under the age of 30 (19 per cent of male voters, 11 per cent of female voters), with well educated (15 per cent of 18-34 year olds with general qualifications for university entrance) and with unemployed voters (16 per cent). The new members of parliament reflect this demography – they are predominantly young, white and male. Nineteen-year-old Susanne Graf is the only woman.

Was this just a protest vote, or did voters see the Pirate Party as a real alternative to the established parties?


In their first press conference after the election, the group of young men seem to be still under the shock of their unexpected success. The offers of the other parties were so bad, says Andreas Baum that the voters chose the Pirate Party. And now there’ll be a fresh breeze in the Berlin Parliament. Transparency in the political process, says Baum, will be an immediate priority.

The newly elected members of parliament are on a steep learning curve and there will be many firsts, like the first time of speaking to such a large audience of journalists, says Gerhard Anger. This learning process will be documented on a blog.

What a refreshing press conference: no polished words, no choreographed media performance. The young men come across like ordinary people, a bit unsure what to say – sincere and likeable.

Does part of the attraction lie in their approach to build direct connections between people, using electronic means? Or their honesty in admitting that they don’t have a position on many political issues, but they will learn and develop? Will their idealism, joy and enthusiasm hold when they are subjected to the tedium of parliamentary processes? They are a new generation of politicians, and time will tell. I wish them well.

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About the Author

Monika Merkes is a social researcher and policy consultant who has worked in state and local governments, the community sector and academia.

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