More Trouble for Merkel as Pirate Party Raids Its Fourth State Parliament

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Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Supporters of the Pirate Party react after the first exit polls for the North Rhine-Westphalia state elections in Düsseldorf on May 13, 2012

Germany’s Pirate Party, which campaigns on a platform of Internet freedom and political transparency, has entered the state parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) — Germany’s most populous state. The party earned 7.8% of the vote, exceeding the 5% required to enter parliament. That showing puts it on par with the Free Democrats, Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, who nabbed 8.6% of the vote, and the Green Party, which managed 11.3%. Speaking at Düsseldorf’s Zakk discotheque after the results came in, biochemical engineer-turned-Pirate Joachim Paul glimpsed even more success on the horizon.”The Pirates in North Rhine-Westphalia are in the state parliament!” he shouted as supporters waved swords fashioned from orange balloons. “Tomorrow, it’s on to the federal Parliament!”

He may be on to something. North Rhine-Westphalia — which includes cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund and Essen — is seen as an important bellwether for national elections, which take place in late 2013. Success in NRW, where nearly 1 in 4 German lives, suggests the Pirates could hoist their flag at the federal level too. It’s a reality that mainstream politicians have largely refused to accept until now. Back in September, when the party stormed into the Berlin parliament with 8.9% of the vote, the competition wrote it off as a fluke that could be attributed to the anything-goes attitude of Berlin. “Berlin is a special place in Germany, and there are a lot of rebellious people and youngsters,” Helga Trüpel, a member of the European Parliament with the Green Party, told TIME at the time. “It’s different in the countryside.”

(MORE: Politics, Ahoy! German’s Pirate Party Scores Another Election Win)

Apparently not. At the end of March the political buccaneers once again scored a victory by earning 7.4% of the vote in Saarland, Germany’s smallest state (excluding the city-states of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg). “They have their strongholds among young people in cities with universities, with an academic environment,” says Lothar Probst, a political scientist at the University of Bremen. “One of the amazing points in Saarland is that it only has one or two universities. The Pirates were still pretty successful in the countryside.” Their ship came in yet again on May 6 when they earned 8% of the vote in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Entering parliament in NRW makes them 4 for 4.

While the Pirates partied with vodka tonics and their laptops on Sunday evening, members of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were left licking their wounds. The party’s share of the vote dropped from 35% to 26% — its worst performance ever in the state. Merkel described it as “a bitter, painful defeat.” And Peter Altmaier, the party’s chief whip in the Bundestag, said the result “exceeds our worst fears.”

Some commentators have rushed to attribute the CDU losses to Merkel’s calls for austerity across the continent, and it’s certainly in vogue to draw comparisons to François Hollande’s successful antiausterity platform in France. But in reality the CDU’s losses probably came down more to the inept campaign run by Norbert Röttgen, the German environment minister and the party’s chief candidate in NRW. He caused outrage among CDU colleagues when he claimed on the campaign trail that the vote was a referendum on Merkel’s management of the euro-zone crisis. Berlin censured him almost immediately. The CDU’s stumbling means that the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which earned 39.1% of the vote, will once again run the state in coalition with the Greens.

Whether established parties were left celebrating or commiserating, all will have talked about the Pirates. Campaigning for free public transportation and a basic income guarantee, they managed to attract 30,000 first-time voters, according to research from Infratest dimap/ARD. The Greens could only attract 20,000. And they also coaxed 70,000 nonvoters to the polls, compared with 50,000 for the Greens. But Germany’s mainstream parties will be most worried about the direct hits they sustained in NRW. The Pirates marauded voters from all major parties, stealing 60,000 from Merkel’s CDU, 80,000 from the Greens and 90,000 from the SPD. “Germany’s party system lacks a party that is young, modern, progressive and representative of the 21st century’s information society,” says Alexander Hensel, a political scientist who studies the Pirates at Germany’s Goettingen Institute for Democracy Research. “The Greens had this role, but they are too old now.”

For a party named after sea bandits, the Pirate Party had to campaign with remarkably little treasure. Their election budget was a mere $150,000. Compare that with the millions spent by the SPD and CDU. As an upstart party, the Pirates had to borrow office space from a supporter to create their regional headquarters. They only set it up six weeks ago (it’s located above the Freak Show Rock ‘n’ Roll Bar in Essen). Campaigning presented other challenges. Election officials limit the number of posters each party can hang around the region based on their success during previous elections. Because the Pirates earned only 1.6% of the vote during state elections in 2010, the committee allowed them to hang just 400 posters, compared with the thousands awarded to their more established rivals. During an 11-minute cab ride from the Essen train station to the party’s headquarters at the end of April, I counted 82 posters for rival parties like the CDU and SPD. The Pirate Party tally was zero.

But it doesn’t matter. Pirate supporters tend to be young and tech-savvy, and live and share their lives on the Internet. Naturally that includes information about their political beliefs and activities. “We don’t advertise online. Our whole online campaign is our members being active within their networks on the Internet,” says Michele Marsching, chairman of the state chapter of the Pirates and now an elected parliamentarian. “There’s no campaign. There’s no plan about how to get to the voters on the Internet. It’s all about being self-made.”

TIME visited the NRW Pirates ahead of their election win and will be reporting on their campaign strategy and beliefs in the international editions of TIME in the coming weeks.

MORE: Read about the founder of the Pirate Party in the TIME 100 2012 Poll

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.