By Miriam Widman
On Sunday Germany's little known Pirate Party took nearly 9 percent of the vote in the Berlin state elections — an astounding outcome that surprised not only election observers, but Pirate Party leaders themselves. All of its 15 candidates are now part of the Berlin state government. The youngest one just turned 19.
The party's base is male software engineers and one of its key goals is expanding the Internet and taking down the many sites in Germany that are controlled and not accessible to the public. But as Miriam Widman reports, the Pirates have more than geek appeal.
A pirate party campaign ad sounds fairly calm and cool, but it is more than a bit shocking. It shows a cop smoking a joint — after marijuana is legalized, of course. And there are two dads holding hands in a park, pushing a stroller.
It all appealed to 48-year-old salesman Thomas Blasik . Though he admits a major reason he voted for the Pirates is that he couldn't stand the other parties.
"Way earlier I voted for the Greens. And what came out of that," Blasik said. "We have a Green Foreign Minister. And what does he do? He gets together with you Americans who descend on Afghanistan."
Blasik is referring to Germany's former Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who trumpeted environmental causes, but also supported sending troops to Afghanistan. Voting data shows that the Greens lost thousands of votes to the Pirates.
But while Blasik complained about Green Party politics, he hasn't actually voted for them, or any other party, in something like 20 years. As a Pirate Party voter, he is not alone. More than 21,000 votes for the party came from people who hadn't voted at all in the last five years.
At the Pirate Party headquarters a day after the big victory, there were a lot of empty beer bottles. Newly elected Heiko Herberg, a 24-year-old law student, is the second youngest member of Berlin's state government. He said the Pirates are big on transparency and plan to tell all when they get into the government.
"We will leak everything that happens there," Herberg said. "We will show everything that happens in politics. No more closed doors. We will make politics for the people and not over the people."
"That's a nice idea," said retired Free University political science professor Nils Diederich. But Berlin state government meetings are already open to the public and the press. And he said he wonders who would really want to see all the stuff the Pirates would release?
"Most of the committees are not very interesting, which is why the press doesn't report them," he said. "But please — go ahead — put everything out there. The only thing that will result is an unbelievable amount of information garbage. But sometimes you can find valuable stuff in the garbage."
Another Pirate Party idea is to tax all Berliners and tourists to pay for free public transportation. Professor Diederich said that would be an absolute no go legally.
"No matter how nice it sounds, I don't think this idea doable," Diederich said. "Raising an extra tax will be exceptionally difficult because municipalities only have limited jurisdiction when it comes to tax law."
He said it is the federal government that is responsible for transportation and consumer taxes, and that people who don't take public transport would challenge it in court and win.
Diederich said he also doesn't think the Pirates have much appeal beyond Germany's biggest cities, which are not many.
Whether the Pirates have staying power or are just a momentary protest vote will play out over the next couple years. The Party has just two years before Germany's federal elections to show its stuff.