Bright sunshine greeted members of Pirate Parties from 29 countries across Europe and the world to Prague for the Pirate Party International conference. The good weather reflected the optimistic mood among the more than 200 attendees, buoyed by recent electoral success in Germany. Polls suggest the Pirates are now the third largest party in Germany, and look set to capture more seats in regional elections in May. With the Austrian party now polling at 7% ahead of elections there, and membership numbers on the rise in the US, the Maghreb and Europe, the Pirates arrived in Prague on the crest of a wave.
It’s a fact immediately evident in the unprecedented media presence at the conference, with German press in particular heavily represented. In Germany, the Pirates are currently front page news. Holding court in front of the cameras and microphones throughout the weekend was Rick Falkvinge, the bombastic founder of the original Swedish Pirate Party.
“The political analysts have no idea where this came from,” says Falkvinge with a giddy grin.
I think their best shot is – ‘Oh my fucking god it’s contagious!’ It’s outpacing my most optimistic estimates. All of a sudden people are not waiting for Sweden – Germany is rushing ahead, Austria is rushing ahead.
The relatively dizzying rise is intoxicating for younger members, bustling with energy and impatient to see purple and orange hoodies invade the grey halls of power. For them the 2014 European elections – the target on the lips of every member present in Prague – can’t come soon enough.
But older party members, while optimistic, are cautious about this rapid success.
“There is still an evolution that the party has to go through,” says Pavel Mayer, elected to the Berlin regional parliament last year, one the movement’s first breakthrough successes. “A lot of new people have joined the party, and they need to be integrated. So this 10/11% that we’ve reached just means lots more work for everyone, and that’s scary,” he continues.
With this success comes a lot of responsibility, and also expectation, which we may not be able to fulfil.
Aside from worries over the supply of coffee, discussion at the conference centred on how the various European parties might best consolidate their respective advances, and make an impact on the European stage. After lengthy and often heated debate (the coffee may not have helped), agreement was reached over the weekend on the establishment of an informal European Pirate Party network to co-ordinate election campaigns in 2014.
“We must head into these elections under a common flag,” says Mikulas Ferjencik of the Czech Pirates.
The network will also work to facilitate co-operation between representatives in Brussels when (and not if) elected in 2014.
The central issues of all Pirate parties – transparent and accessible politics, digital rights and freedoms, and copyright reform – are resonating with an electorate disillusioned with traditional parties post-recession, and politicised by increasingly invasive and authoritarian laws and trade agreements, often made behind close doors.
“They are mainstream issues and they always were mainstream issues,” says Falkvinge. “The problem was that the mainstream media didn’t realise that these are lifestyle issues for the connected generation. Demonising 250 million Europeans for how they live is not going to keep a politician in office for long,” he adds.
ACTA, the controversial anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, has also played a central role in galvanising support for the party. In his keynote address to the conference on Saturday, writer and activist Cory Doctorow spoke of two attitudes that had pervaded for too long amongst the so-called connected generation. That politics doesn’t represent them, and so they stay away from it – what he calls “nerd fatalism” – and that their technology will allow them to circumvent any laws passed to restrict online behaviour.
“In both cases, you end up with a fail,” says Doctorow. “Because the law is superior to your technology, and it will beat the hell out of your ecosystem.”
With ACTA, the emerging bloc concerned with digital rights were compelled to engage politically in order, as they saw it, to save the Internet. Thus engaged, they are beginning to turn to the party that they feel best represents them – the Pirates.
“ACTA certainly played a role on the European level, and more importantly on some national levels,” says Falkvinge. “If you look at Poland, it galvanised hundreds of thousands of people around civil liberties. That’s given the Polish PP a very powerful base for ‘rebooting’ their operation.”
In the three months since the Greek Pirate Party was launched, they’ve recruited 800 members, and are currently polling at 1% ahead of snap national elections in May. The party is so new they’ve only just opened a bank account.
“In Greece people want to vote for something different, they want to vote for new parties,” says Yiannas Panagopoulos of the Greek party.
The current political parties get elected every four years, promise certain things and then do the opposite. There’s also a lot of corruption in Greek politics. Greek people are angry, it feels like there is nothing they can do about it,” he says.
“Not so many people know us, but those that have learned about us have reacted very well to us,” says Panagopoulos. “They’re responding to the way we use direct democracy within our own party, which we’ll also try to apply later in government. In contrast to traditional parties, we’re offering transparency and access.”
Transparency and access: issues that the 762 members of the Catalonia party have also found to be resonating with the voters they talk to. “We defend free access to knowledge, culture and information,” says Kenneth Peiruza of the Catalonian Pirates. “We consider this to be the minimum basis for a healthy democracy. From these principles you can get transparency in government, through the opening up of data.”
“Our members have an average age of 33, usually with a university education, and we’re about 70% male, 30% female, just like any other party,” Kenneth explains. “We are teachers, health professionals, artists, scientists, IT guys … who no longer believe in our democracy in Spain.”
Muriel Rovira Esteva believes media attitudes have held the Catalonian Pirates back, until now. “During the three elections last year, the media simply didn’t talk to us,” she laughs. “Now all of a sudden they want us on the big radio shows and TV programmes.”
With no elections on the immediate horizon, the Catalonian pirates will be targeting European elections in 2014, where they say they’ll compete for every available seat.
For Pavel Mayer, media attention is what has made the difference for the German Pirates over the past year. “In 2009, only 20% of the electorate had heard of us. As a percentage of those who have heard about us, our support has actually stayed about the same. But now 100% of Germans have heard of us.”
“Now it doesn’t matter if they write good things about us or bad things about us – we gain from every article,” says Mayer.
“If they say how dangerous we are then we gain from those people who are fed up with the other parties. If they say we’re good guys, not extremists, pro-Europe, then they paint us as a viable alternative for their own voters. It’s really a Catch 22 for the other parties right now.” He allows himself a broad grin at this prospect. “I love it.”
There’s realism too, about the prospects of parties in the UK and France, where electoral systems make it practically impossible for new parties to gain a foothold.
“The hack we’re doing depends on getting 10% of the votes and 10% of the seats,” suggests Falkvinge.
In the UK and France, for 10% you get nothing. So the European elections have to be the focus there. And we’ve seen a party like UKIP make progress in the UK in European elections.
The UK Pirates, with almost 350 members, face these difficulties by engaging in old-fashioned grass-roots political organising. “We’ve been doing what a lot of other parties haven’t been doing – knocking on doors and talking to people,” explains Ed Geraghty of the UK Pirates, and newly elected PP International board member. “In one of the wards we’re standing in, the turnout at the last election was 25% – only 1 in 4 people actually showed up to vote.
We’re heading out to areas that a lot of the major parties won’t bother with, and focusing on local issues.
Another central Pirate issue is copyright reform. Cory Doctorow spoke of the key political role that the parties can play in pushing for such reform, and the fight against creeping surveillance.
“At every turn, Pirates can advocate for fair, Internet-native solutions to solve the problems of creators, audiences and technologists,” says Doctorow.
The copyright wars are only the first skirmish in a long-coming fight over whether we will solve our social problems with spyware and surveillance. Copyright surveillance always converges on generalised surveillance. The point of DRM is to hide from the user. Once you spy on people’s entertainment choices, you’re spying on their general network usage – and that means that you’re spying on everything.”
His speech received a standing ovation.
The impact the Pirate movement is having shouldn’t be measured simply in terms of poll numbers or electoral success, says one EU insider. “The Pirate Party are forcing European politicians to finally take concrete stands on digital issues,” says Laurence Vandewalle, a political adviser in the European parliament and not a member of any Pirate party. “With issues like ACTA, they’re showing people that this is not about technology, this is about shaping the world that we want to live in tomorrow,” she says. Or as Julia Schramm of the German Pirates put it:
The Pirate Party is not about the Internet, but freedom.
“The phenomenon isn’t new,” says Falkvinge. “It was the same with the Greens and the Workers Party – they weren’t viewed as legitimate political movements by the establishment, and then they got elected. And eventually their views became established – solidarity in the case of the workers, sustainability in the case of the Greens. Each new wave expands on what politics means.”
“We have two steps we need to learn,” says Falkvinge.
We had a narrow platform, but we’re deepening it, we’re broadening our scope just like the waves before us. The Greens went from protesting pollution to having a narrow platform that punished corporations that polluted, on to sustainability and something that radiated across all aspects of society. That’s the same journey we’re on right now. That will take a few years – we can’t shortcut the initial angry activist stage, because without that it will never get momentum.
Secondly, the Pirates will need to learn how to get reelected. “There are many ways to get elected , but reelection is a different game. That’s something we’ll have to learn,” suggests Falkvinge.
“Not everything is bad because it is old,” Pavel Mayer concludes. “But everyone can see how corporate culture has changed, the economy has changed, technology has changed. Politics hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years. There has been almost no innovation in how we make decisions on the political level. That’s the Pirate’s task.”