Can Europe Make It?

How the Pirates in Germany have lost their way

Is there any connection between the decline of the Pirate Party and the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany?

Alessio Colonnelli
26 March 2015

AfD conference in Berlin. Demotix/Jan-Henrik Wiebe. Some rights reserved.

The German Pirate Party (Pirates) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) are two of the country’s most conspicuous political novelties of the past ten years. The former being founded in 2006; the latter in 2013, the year marking the beginning of the Pirates’ visible and irreversible decline.

Many European citizens feel the pinch these days. Even in prosperous Germany. Old politics has left many cold and longing for new ideas. Swathes of unused democratic brownfield were snapped up first by the Pirates and then by AfD – new political buildings are being erected on that soil: some of them already risk being demolished, their foundations proving too weak.

From two-thirds to one-third and back again

The parties’ colours: orange for the young Pirates; blue for the not-so-young AfD. Their members’ average age is respectively 38.9 and 51 years. Germany doesn’t in fact escape the continental trend: large groups among younger voters are either politically disengaged or tend to vote progressively; older voters are inclined to do precisely the opposite. It’s clearly not as black and white as that – of course. They are tendencies, rather. Exceptions are frequent and equally numerous on both sides. There are no lines in the sand in this.

That being said, sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann, professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin told Die Zeit that ‘the youth of today does not act politically, at least in the classical sense. Right the contrary, actually. Their interest in politics is at an historic low point: only a third describe themselves as politically engaged; back in the seventies it was two-thirds of their generation. But, my hypothesis is: they’ll get a lot more political soon.’ Dr Hurrelmann also added he awaits a re-politicization of the young; and in fact there is plenty of inflammable stuff all around, as we've seen in recent years (the interview was from 2010).

Non-apathetic, struggling youngsters – especially those who are not supported by wealthy or relatively so families – tend to look for some sort of articulate political vindication of the intellectual kind: take the Spanish Podemos (the Pirates’ allies in Strasbourg) or the Italian Five Star Movement. Both are parties that have gleaned the vote of the angry and disaffected in a similar yet much more successful way than that of the Pirates, despite a very similar approach regarding their use of the internet.

Size doesn’t matter

The size of the recently founded Pirate Party and AfD is however remarkably similar still; some basic figures:




Members – Average age

23,860 38.9

21,785 51

MPs in the German Federal Parliament (Bundestag)

0 / 631

0 / 631

MPs in the State Parliaments (Landtagen)

43 / 1857

43 / 1857


1 / 96

7 / 96

State funds (2013)

1,738,450.70 euros

1,856,307.35 euros

Their political weight is apparently similar – but only temporarily. The Pirates have in fact already approached a slippery slope; AfD, on the other hand, is getting more robust by the day, as it gets louder and shrewder in its liaisons, like the one informally established with Pegida.

Digital dementia

What were the symptoms of the Pirates’ decline? Were they the same as dementia, of the digital type, as claimed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung? What’s fuelling AfD’s success? Are the two stories intertwined? 2013 was virtually the end of one party and the dawn of the other, after all. A coincidence?

Can the evolution of one movement partly be explained through the involution of the other? If so, to what extent? An attempt to look for plausible, yet partial explanations, will eventually lead to the following conclusion: the ability of the blue party to connect with much higher spheres is probably at the root of the conundrum.

The Pirates’ pledge to liberate the internet and make information more widely available – thus facilitating networking – has tussled against the fact that the traditional media still hold a lot of clout and are perfectly able to shape opinion and exert influence on the web. Sure, experts may well argue against this.

In fact AfD’s campaigning and lobbying as well as its business connections have proved so far considerably more efficacious: what it’s reached in just under two years is nearly phenomenal. AfD is now knocking on the Bundestag’s doors. It was just 0.3 per cent off the target from getting a seat in parliament at the 2013 general election.

Still well below the parliamentary threshold

The Pirates’ approach, instead, works on paper – but not as much when it comes to reach beyond the grassroots canvassing level: their 2009 and 2013 general election performance was a meagre 2.0 and 2.2 per cent respectively – well below the 5 per cent hurdle, with no discernable improvement.

Direct democracy – the basis of the Pirates’ ideology – is too weak a tool against conservative-leaning powers, some of which are clearly behind AfD. Tapping into the discontent of some of the young – however at ease they may be with new technologies – is clearly not enough.

The older – electors, party members and leading politicians alike – seem ironically to be better connected, to have had more time to sharpen their networking skills; they can generally boast more experience of the sheer pragmatic type. It just shows. The Pirates might be familiar with water and liquid democracy – but are nothing like the AfD sea dogs.

Women have been side-lined – but why?

AfD’s rapid ascension has been remarkable to say the least; it’s achieved a lot more than the Pirates have. Its conservative currency has sold much better than that of the social-liberal-progressive-inspired orange party: the AfD’s anti-euro sentiment has more deeply and effectively tapped into a conspicuous minority of Germans, whilst also waking them up from their previous ingrained apathy towards politics.

Having said that, very relevant issues such as more transparency in politics, the digital revolution, or MPs’ multiple mandates turning them into little oligarchs – to mention a few – didn’t actually attract as much attention from the wider public as one would perhaps expect. The Pirate Party never managed to get one single MP in the Bundestag. In all likelihood it never will.

AfD has also clearly snatched some of the protesting vote that was once for the Pirates. But that only partly explains the Oranges’ decline. Other reasons are to be found in inner-party conflicts, like divergent views on what line to follow with out-and-out right-wing sympathizers within the Pirates’ movement itself.

Whether the Pirate Party should, in principle, focus on some key issues or offer a full programme was also an intra-party conflict. Critics of the Pirates, though, claim the party does provide a platform, but a content-less one with a dismal lack of clarity. Another key problem is the worryingly low participation of women in the orange-coloured movement, despite all the talk about holding a post-gender position.

That’s something which is in stark contrast with the Pirates’ pivotal idea of political participation as transparency, based on orientation, competence and pragmatism. This is a youthful, ambitious party displaying, sadly, plenty of contradictions, which many first-hour enthusiasts must’ve eventually spotted.

The 2013 hiatus – the year AfD was officially set up – meant several Pirates’ voters were ready to leave and move on. A potentially interesting political cornerstone of progressiveness is ending up in tatters. Part of the problem, it seems, is women being side-lined – perhaps clumsily; unwittingly. Who knows? It is nonetheless a far-reaching issue, whose consequences have apparently not been fully grasped yet. This is pirates gradually morphing into soldiers – no ladies in our digital barracks, please.

The CDU’s slightly changed stance

Another possible indicator as to why the Pirate Party is going down, while AfD is on the up, is the slight shift of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) towards progressiveness, which has unmistakeably occurred over the past couple of years.

This is not entirely surprising or in contrast with a Christian-inspired feel for solidarity that’s always distinguished CDU  from the philanthropic British Tories, for example, whose harshest critics describe them as patronising, where help from them becomes arbitrary, whimsical and selective of the Victorian kind.

This move, although perhaps minimal, has been crucial enough to make many rethink: attracting some of the orange electors whilst pushing away some former CDU followers who can’t stomach the changes that have occurred and prefer the allure of a properly conservative AfD (Merkel would never have dreamed to come up with the idea of a Big Society, by the way).

2015 has already seen both the introduction of a cap on renting (or more appropriately on re-letting) and the almost contemporary introduction of a general minimum wage: the most pragmatic and conspicuous signs of change in attitude in the CDU (these two measures were of course agreed within the bigger context of the government grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party). Merkel is also insisting on renewable energy, a progressive bulwark: she’s even been to Tokyo recently and told the Japanese right to their face that nuclear energy is plain bad. (AfD is critical of the energy transition in Germany, disagreeing on Merkel’s decision to close all nuclear plants by 2020.)

A new political home

Such a leftward change also meant that many conservative Germans suddenly felt unrepresented; their fig leaf taken away, they searched for something else to conceal their modesty. (For ideas too, as exiting the euro is one that not even Syriza or the Five Star Movement dare toy with anymore.) And they’ve found it: AfD has become their new political home.

AfD is definitely growing by the day, also aided by Pegida who are drumming up a bit of xenophobic business to create the right atmosphere, one that is conducive of even more support. The German Pirates aren’t; and their international network of orange-coloured parties isn’t of much help either – but how could they be? Can they exert any meaningful political influence anywhere at all? Or any decisive lobbying of any sort?

Democracy can always do with diversity, the more colourful the parliamentary spectrum the better (within limits, of course); but intents need be firm. It’s dog-eat-dog out there.

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