Local government elections in Berlin last week brought a sensational result—the Pirate Party boarded parliament with 8.9 percent of the vote.
The Pirates are a party of internet activists, founded in 2006.
Inspired by websites such as Wikileaks, they campaigned for more transparency and democracy. Their activists come from all sorts of political backgrounds, including the youth organisations of centre-right parties, such as the CDU and the FDP.
But in the Berlin, the political profile of the Pirates was broader than just web-based issues. A strong anti-privatisation stance and radical demands on social questions gave them a more radical edge.
One analyst said, the Pirate’s programme reminded him “of the left Greens in their beginnings, before they made peace with the system.”
Berlin is a very poor city with high unemployment. Cherished for its art and student scene—and its media and web-based jobs—the city is also known as the German capital of precarious work, with lots of time-limited contracts and low wages.
The Pirate’s startling results were clearly a vote of non-confidence in the established left in Berlin.
The Labour-like SPD, together with the hard left Die Linke party, have together ruled Berlin for ten years, forcing through cuts and privatisation.
Both parties lost votes in the recent elections. Die Linke gained less than half the votes of its predecessors in the PDS party ten years ago.
The left party’s stint in government scared its voters away, and also hollowed out the party’s base and demoralised its membership. The remaining forces were barely able to mount an effective election campaign.
That the “red-red” Berlin government was a dead man walking has been known for months.
Common wisdom was that the Greens would profit from this. Four months ago, surveys showed them as the strongest party in Berlin, and the city was bracing itself for its first Green major.
But the Greens lost it. They ran a right-wing election campaign, with a former government minister, Renate Künast, as their candidate.
He failed to connect with a general anti-system mood in the city and opened the door to the Pirates, who ripped into the Green’s base.
The Greens still did well in the elections, but not as well as predicted. They are set to form a city government with the SPD.
The liberal FDP was annihilated with a meagre 1.8 percent of the vote, further destabilising Angela Merkel’s national government in which the party is a junior partner.
In a five-party senate, the conservative CDU is the only party that is not calling itself “left”.
After ten years in government, Die Linke finds itself in opposition, debating what went wrong, and how the party can regenerate itself.
The left inside Die Linke—and the Marx21 component of it—have always argued that the participation in governments that enforce cuts and privatisations will harm the credibility of the party.
Conflicts between the party leadership and the rank and file arose in Berlin over the last year. Many activists supported a referendum against the privatisation of water—a position rejected by the leadership.
In the wake of the election, there is real debate in the party and a chance that good lessons will be learned. The left inside Die Linke may well find a bigger audience for its arguments.
But for now, it is the Pirates who are in the spot light and must work out their contradictions.
Concern about web freedom and copyright issues was the political glue that has held the group together. So the head of the German Pirates announced, “We are not left, we are not right—we are ahead”.
Berlin will have a clearer idea what this means in practice when those elected to the city senate vote on the next budget.