This post is provided by our guest blogger Moritz Heumer.

The winning streak of the German Pirate Party is continuing with the latest success of entering the Saarland parliament. Recent polls for the national election suggest that the pirates might reach 11 percent of votes. The continued success of the pirates raises doubts about claims of their gains being entirely based on protest voters. What are the supporters of the Pirate Party then voting for? In this blog I will argue that the Pirates are addressing highly topical issues that are not dealt with by other parties. By doing so they appeal to primarily young voters, especially the digital natives. Based on an analysis of the German Pirate Party’s wikis, I was able to trace its links to other actors which are part of a social movement with transnational scope. This social movement is aiming for policy changes in different fields that are connected with issues arising from the digital revolution. The formation of parties is one element of the mobilization repertoire of this movement. The rise and diffusion of Pirate Parties, itself a transnational phenomenon, therefore cannot be  understood without connecting to the frame of reference that was created by other actors who previously dealt with similar issues.

The frame of reference in the German case

Analyzing the entries on the Pirate Party’s Wiki, I found frequent references to other non-governmental organizations and social movement organizations. Sometimes these organizational actors are directly named: Creative Commons is presented as one of many examples of successful attempts that developed transnational alternatives to the existing Copyright regulation regime. The Open Access Movement and its Berlin Open Access Declaration in 2003 are explicitly supported by the party. In other instances,  arguments and claims refer to positions and work previously taken by others, though these actors are not mentioned by name. For example, the claim of the German Pirate Party to implement more open source software in public administration for reasons of cost savings, efficiency and transparency clearly builds on the open source software movement and pilot projects in the public sector. An interesting point that runs across many of the Pirate’s argumentations os that they tend to highlight efficiency over normative arguments, and thereby have an affinity to technocratic visions of the future articulated by early cyberspace activists in the United States.

Another important ransnational frame of reference, as a matter of course, is the Pirate Party Movement itself. The first foundation of a Pirate Party in Sweden is presented as a trigger and motivation by Pirate Parties founded subsequently. Only few entries on the wiki of the German Pirate Party do still refer directly to the now much less successful Swedish sister party. Yet, the preamble of the German Pirate Party’s programme states: “Thus, the German Pirate Party understands itself as a part of a worldwide movement.” Nevertheless, other Pirate Parties from the European context have been and still will be a crucial factor of support for the Germans. After the victory of the Swedish party in EU elections in 2008 the German Pirate Party gained about 10.000 new members. And for the next elections for the European parliament in 2014 the international umbrella organisation, the Pirate Parties International, just decided for a joint campaign of all European Pirate Parties.

Three functions of the social movement framework

What are the implications of this frame of reference for explaining the sustaining success of the German Pirate Party?

First, the Party programme takes some of its strenght and popularity from the fact that it can refer to previously elaborated arguments and point to already existing alternative practices, as for example in the case of open content licenses in the internet. The often mentioned technological expertise of the Pirate Party members builds on the work of many others that  Pirates feel close to – at least this can be assumed from the constant references made in their discussions on the Wiki.

Second, references to other actors allow the party to draw on existing resources and structures of mobilisation. References to well-known actors like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Free Software Movement and their claims and values can attract potential voters, at least if they are informed about internet and cyberspace debates, to sympathise with the Pirate Party. The Party also makes effective use of discussions taking place on their Wikis. These are often used  for public relations purposes. Documents like a short summary of the Pirate’s aims or the FAQ that mainly addresses first visitors of the Party’s homepage are generated from Wiki discussions.

Third, numerous references show that party members and supporters involved in online discussion fora are deeply influenced by, not to say rooted in, those pre-existing social movements. It could be argued that the Pirate’s social movement background provides a set of shared values and a basic identity to members and supporters. It must be clarified, here, that online communication like in the analyzed discussion Wikis is an important, yet not the only organizational tool of the Pirate Party. It should therefore provide a good insight in the  party’s programmatic debates and collective identity. Furthermore, using the internet for what is called “liquid democracy“, i.e. a political decision-making process which aims at involving as many citizens as possible, is another project of the Pirate Party. Therefore, the internet and cyberspace are substantial for the Pirate Party in a double sense – concerning organisational and decision-making processes as well as as a policy field.

A picture bigger than the frame

Thus, the social movement background of the German Pirate Party seems to be an important way of thinking about its recent success, as well as about its origin and future development. It has influenced the programmatic development, member and voter mobilisation in the past and will affect development of the Party’s identity and image in the future.

But, this in only one take on it. Protest voting behaviour is certainly an important aspect, too. In fact, the Pirate Party’s distinction from established parties, and even the political process itself, was a major topic of dicussion on the Wiki, which is not surprising in the early phase of party formation. Even public relation documents building on the discussion Wikis included statements directly addressing potential protest voters.

In the end, I think, it is important to highlight the fact that both aspects became less and less important throughout the party’s development. Partly harsh statements aiming for distinction and protest voters as well as the frequency of direct references to social movement actors declined in number with the duration of existance of the Pirate Party. At the same time, discussions on the Wikis reflect a tendency towards programmatic expansion and differentiation. In this process the members and suppoerte participating in online discussion seemed to mature in a way, becoming aware of their chances and beginning to take the political project of a German Pirate Party more serious. This process in itself may be an important explanation for the unique success of the German Pirates as compared to Pirate Parties in other countries. While in Sweden the Pirates Party is struggling for votes in elections because it remained a one-issue party, the German Pirates seem to have set sail for programmatic expansion and interal party development.