Whatever happened to the Pirates?

8 years ago, the Pirate Party got a million votes in the German elections. This year it was 60,000. What happened?


One of the less-told stories of the recent German elections was the dog that did not bark. The Pirate Party got 0.1% or just over 60,000 votes. This may not seem particularly newsworthy to anyone new to German politics, but less than 10 years ago, it seemed like the Pirates were on the verge of a serious electoral breakthrough.

In 2009, the first general election in which they stood, nearly a million people voted Pirates and they received a very commendable 2.0% of the vote. This was followed by 2.2% in 2013, as party membership rose to 30,000. Between 2009 and 2011 they won a number of individual council seats and in 2011 they won 8.9% of the vote in Berlin, entering the state parliament. All 15 Pirate candidates were elected.

It seemed that the Pirates were on their way to becoming a serious force. After the Berlin elections, Bild Zeitung ran a headline “Will the Pirates conquer the whole of Germany?” As they continued their electoral successes with 7.4% in Saarland, 8.2% in Schleswig-Holstein, and 7.8% in North Rhine Westphalia, that question did not seem so crazy to ask.

So, what happened? How can we account for the rapid rise and fall of what was, for a brief moment, a national phenomenon?

Freedom Not Fear

One reason for the Pirates’ early success was a series of demonstrations under the banner “Freiheit statt Angst” (Freedom not Fear) organised for data privacy and against the surveillance state. These took place between 2006 and 2015 with an estimated 25,000 demonstrating in 2009. Similar demonstrations were organised in other countries.

The demonstrations were backed by a wide variety of organisations, from ATTAC and the trade union ver.di to Pro-Asyl and the Catholic youth community. It was backed by the Greens, die LINKE and the youth wings of both the SPD and the FDP. And yet in the public consciousness, the Pirates were the party that was most identified with these relatively large mobilisations.

By positioning themselves as the “Netzpartei” (Internet party), the Pirates appeared to be the embodiment of an idea whose time had come.

The limitations of single issue politics

The problems came when the Pirates were forced to take a position on other subjects. The Pirates described their position as “post gender”, arguing that gender is no longer relevant. They rejected the practise of parties like Die LINKE and the Greens of having a certain number of female candidates. Instead, they argued, they selected candidates on merit.

In practise, this meant doing nothing to address sexism and oppression within society. Ulrike Baureithel noted that the Pirates’ position was very similar to those of reactionary “men’s rights” groups, who deny existing discrimination. In her 2013 article The Pirate party and the gender problematic, Manuela Kulick estimated that only around 14% of the Pirates’ leadership at all levels were women, and that the number of female members was even lower.

A further controversy emerged when it was revealed that party functionary Bodo Thiesen had been a Holocaust denier and deputy leader Andreas Popp gave an interview to the far right paper Junge Freiheit. This lost the party members and voters. They issued a statement distancing themselves from right-wing extremism, which lost them further voters.

Whether they tacked to the Right or the Left, the Pirates suffered by taking a position on issues outside their core subjects of Internet politics and surveillance. When they sailed close to the far right, they lost the support of liberals and leftists. But when they disowned this strategy, they lost more conservative support. And yet any party with aspirations to power must take a position on a whole range of issues. In this sense, the fall of the Pirates was always likely.

The downturn of the campaign against state surveillance combined with the lack of clarity regarding the Pirates’ position on most other issues helped start the process which resulted in the Pirates gaining 0.4% in the 2017 general election and just 0.1% this year.

What can we learn?

At their height, the Pirates were able to attract a significant number of people who had not been involved in politics before but wanted to change the world. Sure, the Party always consisted disproportionately of slightly nerdy men, but they made a particular impact on people voting for the first time and people who don’t usually vote.

At least in part, the Pirates owed their success to the idea that they were a members party – everyone could influence policy. In practise, this ended up giving too much power to sexists and those who wanted to flirt with the far right, but the idea that politics is too important to leave to the politicians hit a nerve.

Coalition talks are still ongoing, but it looks like in the near future, both Germany and Berlin will be ruled by “progressive”, “reforming” governments which are unlikely to deliver many reforms. Opposition to these governments will be necessary. We could do worse to regain some of the spirit of the Pirates, without repeating their political mistakes.