The Pirate Party Survived Mutiny and Scandal. In the EU Elections, It’s Trying to Rewrite the Rules of the Web

Outside the skatepark in Prague, on a scrubby patch of grass, Bartoš leans back into his deck chair as he tries to impress on me that Pirates are not your regular stiff politicians. From the campaign launch unfolding behind us, that’s pretty obvious. Yes, there are long speeches and polite rounds of applause. But there are also gangs of shirtless skateboarders, a blue-haired rapper, rainbow banners showing our solar-powered future, and references to the online forums where party members can vote on new policies or demand new leadership.

He disagrees that the broadening of the Pirates’ focus has diluted its identity. “We cannot be a single issue party,” he insists. Instead, he compares the Pirates’ evolution to Europe’s Greens, which started as a grassroots movement built around a single issue: the environment. Now the Greens are applying their original values to everything from housing to energy, as they sit in coalition governments in Germany, Luxembourg, Ireland, and Austria. Although the Pirates “don’t preach” like the Greens, he says, “we’re doing the same journey they did a while ago.”

The Czech branch demonstrates the Pirates’ potential—how an internet-first ideology can be woven into national politics—but it is also a microcosm of the party’s problems. Like other Pirates before it, the Czechs suffer from internal bickering, factionalism, and claims of sexual harassment. Former campaign manager Šárka Václavíková has spoken publicly about her decision to leave the party and her police complaint against a fellow party member for what she describes as stalking and psychological abuse. Over Zoom from her new home in Italy, she says sexual harassment of women was systemic before she left last year—a claim the party strongly denies. “Isolated incidents can, of course, happen, just as in society or any other party. However, if we had any information about such incidents, we would take immediate action,” party spokesperson Lucie Švehlíková told WIRED.

But Václavíková says she’s also disappointed with the direction of the party as a whole. “There are two factions in the Pirate Party,” she declares. There are the centrists, the people who want to appeal to everyone and are disowning the party’s Pirate Bay roots in the process. Václavíková says she identified with the other faction, whom she calls “the real pirates.” “For us,” she says, “the ideology of transparent policy and privacy, and also human rights, are more important than just gaining more power for our own profit.”

So far, Bartoš has prevented these issues from tearing the party apart. Part of why he has lasted so long, surviving a series of leadership challenges (including from Gregorová), is because he can clearly describe what makes the Pirates’ outlook different. Across Europe, other Pirates are still struggling to define what a better future—with more technology, not less—would actually look like. When I sign into a Zoom call with Tommy Klein, political adviser to the Pirates in Luxembourg, he is sitting in front of a poster emblazoned with the phrase “Save Our Internet.” When I ask how exactly the internet needs saving, he replies without enthusiasm that the poster is old. “It’s from the 2018 election,” he says.

Under Bartoš, however, the Czech Pirates have found a way to articulate a utopian vision of a technology-infused future that means more than just reducing Big Tech’s influence on the European internet. Like the Pirate Bureau 20 years ago, the Czech Pirates also have a bus—really more of a camper van—that carries illustrations of their message. There is a sun, with rays resembling internet nodes. Wind turbines and solar farms grow out of rolling pink hills. Slogans like “Girl Power” and “Tolerance” hover over people doing peace signs and smiling through heart-shaped glasses. In Bartoš, the original Pirate vision for an alternative technology-enabled future still lingers. “I believe that we can save the planet and society through technology,” he declares from his deck chair. Whether that optimism is still applicable, 20 years later, is up to the voters to decide.

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