Politics, Ahoy! Germany’s Pirate Party Scores Another Election Win

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Thomas Peter / Reuters

The leader of the Pirate Party Sebastian Nerz, left, and his deputy Bernd Schlömer attend a news conference about the results of the Saarland state elections in Berlin on March 26, 2012

Last September, when the German Pirate Party won seats in the Berlin state parliament for the first time, mainstream politicians dismissed their success as a fluke. Sure, they had secured 8.9% of the vote, pushing them well past the 5% threshold needed to enter Parliament. And yes, they had outflanked the probusiness Free Democracts, or FDP — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners in the federal Parliament who could only muster 2% of the vote. But, as skeptics pointed out, the elections had taken place in contrarian Berlin — a rebellious city where young people have little time for convention. Only there could Pirate candidates — like a 19-year-old student and an unemployed physicist — actually become elected officials.

Think again. On March 25 the Pirates scored a second triumph in Saarland, a tiny and gentrified state along the French border. Focusing on their core issues of Internet freedom and government transparency, the Pirates took 7.4% of the vote — enough to enter the assembly for the first time. Once again they surged past Merkel’s coalition partners. The FDP crashed out of the state assembly with a meager 1.2% share. “The suggestion that we could only succeed in big cities is a misunderstanding of our program,” Sebastian Nerz, the head of Germany’s Pirate Party, tells TIME. “The Pirate Party looks after social and political changes caused by current trends. These changes affect the whole population, not only the classic ‘onliners.'”

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Those issues stem from the core idea that knowledge and culture should be shared free of charge. As such the party wants to legalize file sharing for private use, reduce copyright protections and allow the copying of everything from movies to pharmaceuticals. The German Pirates also advocate for online privacy, a basic minimum wage and free public transport. The party’s reputation as a haven for twentysomething male computer geeks reflects the tech culture from which it was born. Just as the factories spawned the Labour movement and environmental issues gave rise to the Greens, the battle over music piracy led to the formation of the Pirates. Founded in Sweden in 2006, as the music industry intensified its clampdown on people illegally downloading music, the party earned a seat in the European Parliament three years later. Pirates have since gone on to establish sister parties in 40 countries from Bulgaria to Brazil.

The Germans emphasize transparency and openness. Rather than holding discussions behind closed doors as more established parties do, its leadership streams all debates and meetings online. That helps even the most junior members feel involved and stay committed. It also gives the world insight into their back-to-basics approach to politics: rather than hosting a recent retreat for their top brass at a country estate, they chose to convene in a youth hostel, sharing rooms and sleeping in bunk beds. And at their national convention last December any member — and not merely the highest-ranking — could suggest a motion for the party to vote on. “With all the other parties in Germany, you have to work for years to achieve what you can achieve with the Pirate Party just by being a member,” Gefion Thürmer, a member of the party’s national board, tells TIME. Sewn together, those threads have helped define them as an antiestablishment alternative to Germany’s musty traditionalists.

Manfred Güllner, the head of Forsa pollsters, believes the Pirate Party’s showing in Saarland reflects the widening gap between voters and mainstream political parties. “It’s not a vote for something because people don’t really know what they stand for other than a freer Internet as their program is so basic,” he told Reuters. “At the moment, they are living off the fact they are the beneficiaries of people’s frustration with other parties.” According to one exit poll, 85% of Pirate supporters in Saarland voted for them out of disillusionment.

(MORE: Blame the Nukes: Greens Trounce Merkel’s Party in Key Elections)

But disillusionment can prove long-lasting — and Saarland may portend a wider shift in power ahead of Germany’s 2013 federal elections. Following Sunday’s results, the FDP now seems poised for extinction, leading the Financial Times Deutschland to describe them as “little more than a little heap of misery.” And the Greens — once the darlings of young voters and the most mainstream political alternative — may be feeling their age. Its leaders, now in their 50s, increasingly face criticism from the Pirates that they’ve lost touch with Germans and grown increasingly power-hungry. “The Greens should stop being stuck with the social problems of the ’70s and ’80s,” says Nerz of the Pirate Party. “They achieved a lot, but they have to pick up new trends to stay relevant for the modern society. They should also check if their ideals are still alive or have been lost in the business of daily politics.”

Pollsters suggest the Pirates will likely keep the momentum going at state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine–Westphalia (NRW) in May. The latter elections could serve as a bellwether for Germany’s federal elections next year as NRW is the largest of Germany’s 16 states. Political uncertainty in the region, which includes the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Dortmund, may help the Pirates seize more ground. Two weeks ago the NRW parliament unanimously agreed to dissolve itself after the governing coalition — comprising the Social Democratic Party and the Greens — failed to pass a budget. The FDP are currently polling at just 2% — a result that would usher them out of yet another state assembly.

The FDP’s woes are fueling rumors that Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) — which won the Saarland elections with 35% of the vote — will need to revive their old alliance with the center-left Social Democrats in 2013. Merkel hasn’t revealed her plans and will no doubt wait to see how the upcoming regional elections unfold before doing so. But she has admitted publicly that the CDU will need to log in to the issues that the Pirate Party currently owns. “We have set up an Internet group within the CDU,” she said the day after the elections in Saarland. “We have to be aware of the Pirates.”

Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.