RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Germany, a new political party is making waves. The Pirate Party advocates a very expansive form of participatory democracy. Everyone is invited to come on board. And as it turns out, the party is made up mostly of young, tech-savvy voters. It's shaking up the stolid, bureaucratic world of German politics, as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Berlin.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: On Tuesday night in Neukolln, a disheveled, yet trendy Berlin district, the Kinski Bar buzzes like it's a Friday. The sparsely furnished tavern is filled with casually dressed 20-somethings chatting, laughing, smoking and debating in between bites of pizza and sips of cheap draft beer. As it is every Tuesday, it's Pirate Party night here - the political party, not the party party. But at Kinski Bar on Tuesdays, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference.
THORSTEN FISCHER: Many things of the Pirates are so unprofessional, and thereby so charming, that you see, well, what they can do, I can do also. You know, I can contribute to this.
WESTERVELT: Twenty-nine-year-old Thorsten Fischer - dressed in a casual, hip outfit of pastel-colored T-shirt and smart jeans - belies the image in the German press that the Pirates are all computer nerds. He's now working on his second startup company, developing - what else - an app for mobile devices. In some ways, Fischer's entrepreneurial spirit brought him to the Pirate Party. He says he was attracted by the Pirate's tech-savvy libertarianism that stresses freedom of expression, transparency in government and Internet freedom.
FISCHER: People don't want people to tell them, like, how it should be. They have their own ideas about these things, you know. And that is something that really resonates with many people, and not only of my generation, but, if you have an open mind, for everyone.
WESTERVELT: Nearby, another recent Pirate convert, 26-year-old Xenia Miheeva, shares a pizza with the bartender. She points out that the Pirates are no fad. They've now won seats in four state parliaments, including in Berlin and Germany's most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia. They're now the fourth-most-popular party in Germany.
XENIA MIHEEVA: More and more people realize that the Pirates have a totally different style and kind of doing politics, that's like a mix between sexy and complicated, boring bureau things, because you actually can be a part of it. You feel that your voice is heard.
WESTERVELT: Pirate Party voices are heard in Internet chat rooms, where issues and ideas are discussed and fed into an online forum the Pirates call liquid feedback. The party sees this as a way for everyone to take part in real-time cyberdebates to help formulate policy.
Twenty-eight-year-old Martin Delius studied physics and computer programming. He's now the party's chief whip in the Berlin city-state parliament. He says he was attracted by the liquid feedback approach to issues, harnessing the free-wheeling nature of the Internet for far more than status updates and recipes.
MARTIN DELIUS: That is the substantial issue of the party. Do not restrict the free flow of information, because there's so much good coming out of it that it weighs up all the bad things that can happen.
WESTERVELT: The liquid feedback approach to policy raises questions about how to separate thoughtful ideas from polemics by provocateurs and pranksters who troll the Web. The Pirates use complex algorithms to create fast, collective decisions, but they've yet to show that liquid feedback can actually shape substantive, timely legislation or policy. And there's fear their Web-based approach could veer toward a kind of Google-ocracy: democracy as algorithm.
VOLKER BECK: The ridiculous truth about the Pirates is that they take our proposals from parliament and put it into their liquid feedback system to discuss about it. They are taking up our content and propose them as their own.
WESTERVELT: That's Volker Beck, a senior member of the German Green Party. The Pirates' rapid rise has the Greens and other established parties a little scared. Polls show the Pirates are catching up, and in some areas, surpassing the Greens. Beck, the Green's federal parliamentary whip, complains that the Pirates are living off their gimmicky liquid feedback and thriving despite incoherent positions.
BECK: I don't see any social, financial economical program of this party. Are they on the left? Are they on the right? Are they for saving the euro, or are they against? On everything, I have no clear idea what the party is standing for.
WESTERVELT: The Pirate Party's Martin Delius counters that the Greens may have done incredible things politically over the last 30 years, but he says, with a little smile, the Greens are now establishment and boring.
DELIUS: One-third of our voters are coming from the people who didn't vote before. So that is good for democracy, I think. That's a good sign.
WESTERVELT: Next year, the Pirate Party faces a key test as it fields candidates for federal parliament, the Bundestag, as it pushes to expand its presence on the national and world stage. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.