* Upstart Pirate party gaining respect in Germany
* Pirates enter second German state assembly
* Mainstream parties worry as Pirates poach voters
By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN, March 26 The startling success of
Germany's new Pirate party in Sunday's state elections in
Saarland underscores its status as a political force to be
reckoned with, as it is already shaking up established party
dynamics ahead of next year's federal vote.
The Pirate Party, whose eclectic campaign is focused on
internet policies and broader participation in the political
debate, stormed onto the German political scene last year by
seizing 8.9 percent of votes for Berlin's city assembly.
Its membership has nearly doubled in a year to around 21,600
members, and the Pirates entered their second state parliament
after taking 7.4 percent of the vote in the tiny state of
Saarland. Germany has 16 federal states.
The main parties view as incapable of governing and dismiss
it as a protest movement with no real political platform.
Yet, the upstart party outshone both the Greens and
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Free Democrat (FDP) allies who
crashed out of the assembly with just 1.2 percent.
"People voted for us because we offer something new and
fresh, and because we are completely normal people who engage
citizens," Jasmin Maurer, 22, regional head of the Pirates, told
"And what also moved people to vote for the Pirates was our
focus on more civil rights, more democracy and transparency."
Their Berlin success was initially viewed as a one-off.
But they are gaining momentum, and pollsters predict they
have good chances of clearing the five-percent hurdle to win
seats in state assemblies in Schleswig-Holstein and North
Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in elections in May.
"They are on the upswing and politics is a very emotional
business," said Klaus Schoeppner, head of polling group Emnid.
"For both the coming regional elections, they have good chances
of getting in."
Joachim Paul, 54, a leader of the Pirates in NRW, said
membership there had already risen after Sunday's electoral
success in Saarland. "This is a fantastic campaign basis for us
and I hope there is a chain reaction in the vote here," he said.
ANYTHING BUT THE MAINSTREAM
The Pirate Party first emerged in Sweden six years ago to
campaign for reform of copyright and better privacy in the
Internet age. When the German chapter was founded months later,
it was initially seen by some as a group for computer nerds.
The Pirates may still be led by their technology-savvy core
membership, but they have since broadened their agenda to
include issues such as establishing a minimum wage and providing
voters with more opportunities to decide on the issues of the
day, offering a new alternative to musty mainstream politics.
Pollsters said the Pirates, whose members have an average
age of 31, had mostly gained the votes of people fed up with
established parties. An exit poll showed 85 percent of the
Pirates' voters in Saarland did so out of disillusionment.
"It's not a vote for something because people don't really
know what they stand for other than a freer internet as their
programme is so basic," said Manfred Guellner, head of Forsa
pollsters. "At the moment, they are living off the fact they are
the beneficiaries of people's frustration with other parties."
"The Pirates voters come from all layers of society, they
are not only young nor middle-aged. They're abandoning all
parties from the FDP to the Left."
The Pirates have in many ways usurped the Greens as the
country's impudent alternative to the mainstream. "The Greens
had this role for a long time, but now their leaders are in
their 50s and it is a very established party," said Schoeppner.
That other parties see the Pirates as a serious threat
nationwide was demonstrated on Monday by the increasingly
combative stance they struck at headquarters.
"My goal is to keep the Pirates out of Bundestag," said
Andrea Nahles, the General Secretary of the centre-left Social
Democrats (SPD). "They are political competition and are causing
a lot of trouble for parties in the centre ground."
A problem arising from the Pirates' surge may be that it
becomes more problematic for parties to form coalitions in an
increasingly fragmented landscape, leaving a "Grand Coalition"
of the two major parties one of the only options.
According to the latest national polls, some 20 percent of
the vote would go to parties such as the Pirates. That would
thus make it more difficult to form a centre-left or
Whether or not the Pirates become a mainstay of German
politics now depends on how they perform in parliament.
"They must learn the art of politics and offer answers, like
the Greens were forced to," said Forsa's Guellner, referring to
the Greens' ascent from a single-issue environmental party in
the 1980s portrayed as tree-hugging hippies to become a partner
in the federal government.
But their mere presence on the political scene has already
led other parties to lend more focus to issues such as internet
policies, just as the Greens drew attention to the environment.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said her party was well aware the
Pirates were becoming a key player.
"We have set up an Internet group within the CDU," she said
on Monday. "We have to be aware of the Pirates."