A new wave of rebellious political movements is gaining prominence in Europe, based on the tenets of net neutrality, government transparency, citizen participation, and civil liberties. Originally launched as (somewhat tongue in cheek) protest movements against the dominance of traditional parties, there are now two ‘e-democracy’ political parties serving in government – one in Germany, with the Pirate Party, and the other in Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S). While these movements are revealing deep and important currents of dissatisfaction in the European body politic, the effectiveness of their governance and its implications for their future remains to be seen.

 

These parties, which combine civil libertarianism with a sort of techno-utopianism, have proliferated across Europe at the same time that traditional parties face challenges to their legitimacy due to the Eurozone crisis. Their recent success, however, only heightens questions about their idiosyncratic political platform and inexperienced candidates. It remains an open question whether the support of a small but not insignificant bloc of voters translates into true legitimacy for the movement’s ideas, or whether they are simply the beneficiaries of pent up political frustration.

 

A new wave of rebellious political movements is gaining prominence in Europe, based on the tenets of net neutrality, government transparency, citizen participation, and civil liberties. Originally launched as (somewhat tongue in cheek) protest movements against the dominance of traditional parties, there are now two ‘e-democracy’ political parties serving in government – one in Germany, with the Pirate Party, and the other in Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S). While these movements are revealing deep and important currents of dissatisfaction in the European body politic, the effectiveness of their governance and its implications for their future remains to be seen.

These parties, which combine civil libertarianism with a sort of techno-utopianism, have proliferated across Europe at the same time that traditional parties face challenges to their legitimacy due to the Eurozone crisis. Their recent success, however, only heightens questions about their idiosyncratic political platform and inexperienced candidates. It remains an open question whether the support of a small but not insignificant bloc of voters translates into true legitimacy for the movement’s ideas, or whether they are simply the beneficiaries of pent up political frustration.

The original Pirate Party was founded in Sweden and has since morphed into an international coalition of parties supporting civil rights, direct democracy, and governmental transparency. In Germany, the Pirates, officially formed in 2006, began gaining prominence in 2009 with their first electoral successes at local government levels. In 2011, Germany’s Pirates entered the parliament in Berlin with 15 out of 141 seats. Surprising and troubling many political observers, the party received 8.9 percent of the vote in that election, surpassing the 5 percent threshold required to be allocated seats.

The Pirates, as a self-proclaimed social-liberal-progressive party, rely largely on youth and first time voters for their base of support. And the Pirates are inarguably youthful. In 2009 the party secured 13 percent of all first-time male voters, and all of those elected in 2011 were under 30 years old. In the words of Berlin-based New York Times report Nicholas Kulish, the Party’s leaders “resembled Peter Pan’s Lost Boys more than Captain Hook’s buccaneers.”

In addition to youth, it is unclear what answer, if any, the Party has for the broader economic policy issues that currently dominate European policymaking. Their platform focuses on a slew of technology and privacy-related issues: governmental transparency, drug legalization, and copyright and patent law reform, among others. In 2011 they managed to avoid formulating clear positions on macroeconomic policy, an approach that is unlikely to succeed in 2013.

In Italy, the M5S movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, has also argued for the expansion of direct democracy and civic participation, although, unlike the German Pirates, it has focused greater attention on economic policy issues. Its platform focuses on the expansion of the economy through a populist mix of tax cuts, “green” jobs and infrastructure, government transparency, and social justice.

Playing off of the widespread dissatisfaction with the Italian political elite, and the despair caused by unemployment and economic stagnation, the M5S has become one of the largest parties within Italy, capturing 26 percent of the vote in its debut election. The party itself identifies as center left, pulling its votes from the youth as well as, surprisingly, many formerly conservative voters exhausted with the current political environment. In contrast with the staid establishment parties, the Five Star Movement is anything but boring. Grillo, for instance, originally tapped into populist anti-EU sentiments by calling for a withdrawal from the Euro, but has since moderated that stance.  

The sustainability and stability of the movement are open questions, however, especially with regard to the personalistic style of leadership practiced by Grillo and his founding partner, Gianroberto Casaleggio. Grillo and Casaleggio, whose internet firm based in Milan, own the movement and its brand – after buying the rights to it in 2009. Grillo has maneuvered to keep the movement dependent on himself, unlike the decentralized, anarchic nature of the Pirates. The M5S communicates almost exclusively through Grillo’s blog and elected officials are not allowed to appear on talk shows or other public broadcasts (a rule taken seriously, after two party members were expelled for breaking it in 2012.) The movement also doesn’t allow candidates with former political experience to run, with the stated intention of allowing ordinary citizens to participate – but with the additional consequence, unintended or not, of impeding the emergence of serious contenders for party leadership.

Despite their uncertain and unconventional policies, both the Pirates and the Five Star Movement are tapping into a new trend in democratic politics. The internet has become increasingly relevant for governance across numerous sectors – for good and bad, both increasing transparency and threatening privacy. By focusing on these concerns, both of these groups have developed support among citizens that have previously been disconnected from politics. Now, as these parties win seats and assume actual responsibility, it remains to be seen how they will grapple with the thorny problems that have stymied more experienced parties.