27th January 2008 will see only the second election worldwide to include a Pirate Party on the ballot. It will not, however, be in Sweden, but the German state of Hesse, in south-west Germany.
The Hesse state Pirate Party is fronted by Christof Leng, a 32 year old Ph.D. student at the Technische UniversitÃ¤t Darmstadt, where he does peer-to-peer research. Mr Leng was co-founder of the German National Pirate Party and served as it’s first chairman. He has also just been selected for a position in the steering committee of the German GI. He graciously made time in his busy campaigning schedule to talk to TorrentFreak about the upcoming election, and why people should ‘Vote Pirate’.
TorrentFreak – What topics are you focusing in on your campaign?
Christof Leng – With national data retention starting on January 1st, this is certainly a major topic not only for us, but for the opposition in general. Beyond that, the privacy infringements by government agencies are something to be discussed. Another big topic for young people are the new tuition fees, which lead to a drop in student numbers. We believe strongly in the knowledge society and stopping the concept of free education will hurt Germany’s future.
TorrentFreak – So more on the privacy than culture/copyright angles?
Christof Leng – Unfortunately, copyright is something that is not decided in Hesse or even in Germany, but mostly on the European level. Thus is plays a lesser role in this election. But we try to raise awareness and get support for the next European election in 2009.
TorrentFreak – How many people have you put up as candidates?
Christof Leng – Ok, I guess I should explain a little bit about the German election system first. We have (party) lists and direct candidates, and we don’t run for direct seats, only a party list. A direct win would be utopian, as it’s majority vote. Because we’re sane and realistic, we focus on the list, which in our case has seven pirates on it.
TorrentFreak – And the minimum requirement on the party list is 5%?
Christof Leng – To get into the regional parliament of Hesse, yes, but to my best knowledge, no new party ever achieved this on this first election in an existing federal state.
TorrentFreak – Are you, however, hopeful?
Christof Leng – There are other things to aim at. If you get 1% at a regional election, you get public funding.
TorrentFreak – Is that an attainable goal?
Christof Leng – As we are a brand new party it’s really hard to predict. The Hessian division of the party was founded in February with only a few pirates. Less than a year later we already have a efficient organization and were able to collect those 1000 signatures. And the growth has not slowed down by any means. It might be not as mind-blowing as in Sweden, but we are really happy with the development. Now we want to show that we are in fact serious party and can do campaigns and participate in elections. Furthermore, while we are already well-known in the interested public, we are still mostly unknown to the general public. Everything we currently do helps us to get more and more attention.
TorrentFreak – How has your party been viewed by the mainstream media?
Christof Leng – I have no real overview of that, sorry. I’m aware that a lot of newspaper articles have mentioned us as an example of the smaller parties in the upcoming election (I guess it’s because of the catchy name), but we have been ignored mostly so far. But the election campaigns just started to heat up, there’s not much news about the election in general. We have been covered by media interested in youth, Internet/computer, and/or civil rights. We are regularly covered by Heise Online, the most important German computer/Internet news site. A lot of journalists support us, because they feel the pressure of surveillance hits them hard and hits them first. Freedom of press is endangered and they are aware of it. There have been several scandals of government agencies investigating journalists and infringing privacy laws while doing that. You also read more about the US election 11 months away in *German* press than about the Hessian one 2 months away…
TorrentFreak – It must drive you mad.
Christof Leng – On the contrary. The heat of the election in Sweden really did hurt the Swedish pirates. If it is close and it seems important, many people are afraid of trying something new. We are new, we still need to build up our reputation. That’s much easier now than in an election where people will go for the safe bet anyway. We’d not be able to compete with the major parties mainstream media coverage. With them not being covered by the media either it’s not that much of an uphill battle, but it is still uphill, of course. It’s an optimal setting for us in Germany right now (as a party, not as a citizen). The two biggest parties form a national coalition. That boosts smaller parties naturally. Imagine the US president being a republican and the vice president a democrat…
TorrentFreak – Clearly you don’t have the financial support that the major parties have, how has that altered your strategies from the traditional methods used in a political campaign?
Christof Leng – We claim that we are experts of knowledge society, online cooperation, and sharing. That is also our strong point in the campaign. We use the Internet a lot, not only to reach voters, but to coordinate our campaign. Also, most of the population in Hesse is concentrated in the Rhein-Main area (Frankfurt is the biggest city). This makes it easy for us to reach a good part of the voters. Especially the voters that are interested in our topics (students, IT workers, journalists), and they use the internet.
TorrentFreak – with about 38Million of Germany’s roughly 82M citizens as net users, that’s clearly a core demographic.
Christof Leng – Exactly .
TorrentFreak – Is there much negative campaigning in Germany?
Christof Leng – yes, but only bashing the big parties. We are mostly ignored as a party. But… they start adopting our positions. the SPD tries to look like a civil rights party in comparison with the CDU, even though they work together on data retention in the national government. the Green party made a big fuss on their last convention about how bad data retention is. The Left party tout the topic too. Point is, none of the parties takes the topic seriously.
TorrentFreak – Why is that?
Christof Leng – the SPD and Green Party prepared much of what is going on now back when they were in government. The SPD and Left party form a coalition in Berlin and just issued new laws for public surveillance. each of the established parties plays the white knight for civil rights only as long as they are in opposition. they are brainwashed as soon as they are in government. That’s why we need the Pirate Party.
Jan Huwald, Political secretary of the Piratenpartei Deutschland was similarly upbeat about the election. “Most motivating in the upcoming election campaign is it’s constant relation to grassroot political movement. Beside the visible activity the word is spreading about the pirates. Citizens are aware of our new party much more than traditional media’s coverage might suggest. In fact while collecting signatures many people actively searched for our signing stand to help out”
The question still remains, however, if the Hesse party will do any better than Rick Falkvinge, and the Swedes did in 2006.