The weekend before last, pirates entered the parliament in the German city-state of Berlin. The Pirate Party, that is, which was the surprise inside runner in the state election, winning just shy of 9% of the vote for the 141-seat House of Deputies. So who are these swashbuckling newcomers? Originating in Sweden, the German chapter of this crew of data processing technicians and industrial electronics experts (read: nerds!) has been described as “young, male and engaged”. But, says Susanne Graf (19), the party’s only woman of 15 candidates elected, and member of a group called Chaos Computer Club, “You don’t have to be a nerd.”

The political terrain in a place such Berlin is somewhat different to Australia. Let’s face it: one was a capital of 20th-century history, and the other, er, wasn’t. If you ask any news-interested person in Berlin, “So, the Australian Labor Party’s policy on refugees looks worse than Ruddock, eh?” the answer might be something like, “Oh, you have a labour party?” Even at a local level, what happens in the capital city of the fourth largest economy in the world — and arguably the place where Europe’s strategy for survival (or not) of the global economic crisis is being nutted out — is of considerable global consequence.

Back to the Pirates: while admitting to having up to now only a skeleton version of a party program, its bones are solid, progressive staples: democracy, transparency, broadening access to internet and schools, anti-surveillance, pro-immigrant, and pro-s-xual freedom. What is clear is that they, along with the Greens (17.6% (+4.5)), have won a protest vote against the governing coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD, 28.3% (-2.5)) and their smaller partner, The Left Party (11.7% (-1.7)).  This “red-red” coalition lost more than 4% of its support base collectively, primarily due to the program of social cuts, privatisation of utilities and rent rises that have taken place under its shared leadership.

This is a hard blow to The Left Party, whose effectiveness as an oppositional force to these cuts (none of which is officially supported in the party’s program) has been severely compromised by its share in government. The Left Party was formed officially in 2007 through a merger of left-wing trade unionists, a left split from the SPD led by former federal finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, and the Party of Democratic Socialism (loosely disguised descendant of the old East German Socialist Unity Party). But The Left Party’s radical social democratic and anti-capitalist program — demanding a minimum wage, halting wild rent increases, an end to German involvement in Afghanistan, for s-xual and gender equality, for scrapping the regressive HartzIV social welfare structure and greater investment in public education — has suffered in the state of Berlin through its association with the SPD.

The SPD is credited with the introduction in 2003 of Agenda2010, seen by many as one of the most wide-ranging and aggressive neo-liberal policies in decades. In a latest insult, just 10 days before last weekend’s vote, local Neukölln mayor Heinz Buschkowsky of the SPD accepted a €5000 donation from another, rather different ex-finance minister, Thilo Sarrazin. Neukölln, where I live, is a southern district of Berlin famous for its large Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic diasporas. For those who don’t remember, Sarrazin last year published his rollicking classic Germany Abolishes Itself, which claimed, among other things, that Jews are genetically predisposed to higher intelligence and that Germany’s tolerance of pesky Muslim immigrants is dumbing the nation down. Buschkowsky defended his acceptance of the donation by saying, “well, we’re not so ideologically pig-headed that we’d turn down a donation like this in an election”. So much for the social democratic tradition …

But the biggest losers were by far the Liberal Democrats (1.8% (-5.8)), champions of free-market capitalism federal governing partner to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU, 23.4% (+2.1)), who picked up only a fraction of this dramatic haemorrhage. The votes of the multifarious far-right parties also decreased. What is clear is that the good (pirate) ship Berlin has remained on a more-or-less progressive course with the majority of Berliners voting for real social democratic reforms, whether from the Left, the Greens or the Pirates. The talk is now of new a new coalition but nobody knows yet what that will be.

The SPD has maintained its position as the biggest kid on the block, and is in negotiations with the Greens and the CDU. Though there was some speculation that the Pirates might have a hand in coalition government, they will have to keep their cutlasses in their sheaths until more is known about the bigger players.