Why didn't Germany's Pirate Party capitalize on NSA anger?

Outrage over US spying allegations resonates broadly with the German public – but that didn't keep the pro-privacy Pirates from flopping in recent elections.

Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters/File
A visitor reads a leaflet next to a picture showing tape recorders used for surveillance inside Stasi Museum in Berlin in October. Despite anger in Germany over allegations of broad NSA spying – behavior many Germans associate with the Stasi, the former East Germany's state police – the privacy-focused Pirate Party fared badly in recent federal elections.

There's a photo of a graffiti slogan in the Berlin Stasi Museum which captures the mood in East Germany in January 1990. “Genug gespitzelt – raus jetzt,” it says: “Enough spying – now get out.”

That sentiment has gotten new life in Germany this year, albeit with a new target: instead of the German Democratic Republic's Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, it's the US and its National Security Agency that are objects of Germany's anger.

But despite Germany's revulsion over the NSA revelations, the country's Pirate Party – a political group whose very raison d'être is protecting people's privacy online – flopped in the Sept. 22 elections, failing to gain a single seat in the Bundestag, Germany's national parliament.

What happened?

Stasi history

The Stasi Museum, based in the Stasti's former headquarters, gives a sense of just why invasion of privacy is such a loaded topic in Germany.

In the forty years during which East Germany was a communist dictatorship, surveillance of the public was widespread. The Stasi used wiretapping devices, had machines to open and reseal letters, and relied on 180,000 civilian informers who often cooperated out of fear that refusal would make them a suspect. It is estimated that about 2 percent of the population was involved in domestic spying.

The Stasi experience, together with the way storage of personal data came to be horribly abused during the Holocaust, explain why Germans are more sensitive about privacy protection than other European nations – and why the NSA spying is such a hot-button issue.  

According to a recent poll, 6 out of 10 Germans see Edward Snowden as a hero for revealing the NSA's spy programs. And today, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in a speech to the Bundestag that the NSA accusations "are grave. They must be explained and, more important still for the future, new trust must be built."

An opportunity?

Given the German response, it would seem like a perfect time for the Pirate Party to capitalize.

Since the first Pirate Party was founded in Sweden almost eight years ago, dozens of sister parties have sprung up, mostly in Europe. All these Pirate Parties focus on civil rights online, government transparency, and reform of copyright law. Two members of the current European Parliament belong to the Swedish Pirate Party, the Czech Republic has a Pirate in the Senate, and earlier this year three Pirates became a member of the Icelandic parliament.

The country with the most elected Pirate representatives is Germany: 205 representatives sit in municipal councils and 44 in state parliaments. The Pirates have 30,937 members across the country.

But in the recent federal elections the party was only able to attract 2.2 percent of the votes – not enough to pass the 5 percent threshold needed to sit in the Bundestag. Two days after the elections, party leader Bernd Schlömer announced his decision to retire.

Pirate postmortem

On a recent Thursday evening, a dozen party members gathered in the back room of an Italian restaurant in Berlin, one of their strongest constituencies, and discussed what went wrong.

Some suggest they didn't seem to go after the NSA strongly enough. Party member Denis Sabin says people ask him why they haven't heard a stronger stance from the Pirate Party over the spying scandal. “But we did a lot,” he says.

“There were demonstrations, interviews, and we organized about a hundred cryptoparties” – workshops where attendees learn how to secure their data. However, the subject of surveillance is “a complex issue,” Mr. Sabin adds. What's missing in the NSA scandal is a strong emotional response like the one towards the end of the GDR, says Sabin.

Bastian Blankenburg, a fellow party member and programmer, agrees. “The consequences of what the NSA does are not very clear. In the GDR, you could lose your job because of something a Stasi informant picked up. Now people don't see what could happen,” he says.

The German Pirates hope they can find that visceral connection to boost their appeal in time for the European Parliament elections of May 2014. But Mr. Blankenburg adds that the party may also be a victim of its own ethos: specifically, its dedication to being open.

“Our goal is more transparency, also in our own organization,” he says, noting that a public row between Mr. Schlömer and the Pirates' political director, Johannes Ponader, was not helpful. The image of a party whose members are always bickering has proven hard to shake off.

“But if you want transparency, then you can expect quarreling in public. It happens in other parties too, but they hide it.”

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