The Berlin headquarters of Germany’s satirical political party are surprisingly difficult to locate. There are no signs, just people smoking in café chairs outside a blue store front. Inside, scruffy men sit around a bottle-strewn table, fiddling with papers and pastel candies. News clippings hang opposite a dart board in one corner. Another wall features a bald-headed man glowering out of a poster that reads, “Kançler!” People cheer as two guys roll through wearing Popeye-esque sailor suits. They get their photos taken by a man in socks and sandals, then saunter off to more applause.
With 2,000 members in Berlin and 24,000 across the country, Die PARTEI (whose acronym stands for “Party for Labor, Rule of Law, Animal Protection, Promotion of Elites, and Grassroots Democratic Initiatives”) is one of the biggest small parties in Germany. It was founded in 2004 by editors at the satirical magazine Titanic, and back then, no one would have put money on its political future. Yet this joke party has serious clout. The 2014 EU elections landed party-leader Martin Sonnenborn a seat in Parliament, and in the 2016 Berlin elections Die PARTEI earned 4.6% of the vote in Kreuzberg and 2% overall, more than any other party its size.
Riza Cörtlen, current chairman of Berlin operations, is largely responsible for the party’s local success. Last year he was elected along with three other party members to the BVV Kreuzberg, a municipal-level body of representatives. He hasn’t accomplished much at his new job. Unless you count redecorating his district office. The lavish revamp—replete with hot pink walls and 24-karat gold trim and presumably financed by his thousand-Euro-a-month government allowance—was inspired, he says, by fellow politicians.
But Cörtlen is an unlikely politico. A soft-spoken man, he was born in Frankfurt, where he lived as a squatter in his early 20s after failing vocational training to be a forester. In 1981, he moved to Berlin, drawn to the city’s reputation as a haven for alternative living. At the time, West Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Schöneberg neighborhoods had over 100 squats. They were settled during an acute housing shortage and a series of unsuccessful urban restructuring projects. Squatting, out of need and later as protest, eventually became a critical part of the countercultural movement in the early 80s.
It was through squatting that Cörtlen developed an interest in radical politics. He joined the extremist left-wing Autonome movement in the mid-80s, but was pushed away by its dogmatic approach, which wasn’t “punk rock” enough for him. Then in 1988, a friend of his founded the satirical party kpd/rz (Kreuzberger Patriotische Demokraten / Realistisches Zentrum) on a whim. It was the first organization of its kind in Berlin, a pseudo-party that fooled everyone with its clever mimesis and nonsensical agenda. The name of the party is a good example. As an abbreviation, kpd/rz reminds Germans of the now-defunct Communist Party (KPD) and leftist radical group Revolutionäre Zellen (RZ). Read out loud, however, it sounds like a local right-wing group. And to make matters more confusing, their slogan touted them as extreme centrists.
Cörtlen reflects that the group began more or less for fun, and that they mostly “wanted to see ‘kpd/rz’ on a ballot.” But people started voting for them, and in 1999, the party secured a seat in the BVV Kreuzberg. They might have gotten farther too, if Berlin’s neighborhoods hadn’t been redistricted in 2001. The administrative reform brought Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain together into one borough, causing kpd/rz to lose percentage points overall given their relative obscurity in Friedrichshain. The party struggled to recuperate. When Die PARTEI arrived a few years later, it was like a reset button for kpd/rz. Instead of competing with the new satirical party, Cörtlen and other founding members joined forces, bringing their support base of dissentient Kreuzbergers with them.
Running Die PARTEI is now a prominent part of Cörtlen’s life. He calls it his “hobby,” but during the campaign season, he spends upwards of five hours a day on party matters. Die PARTEI has even become a quasi-family for him, though he quickly adds that “there’s always an uncle who’s an idiot.”
As a family, Die PARTEI is a fairly unusual one. Its members range from young politics students to radical old-timers. In between you’ll find artists, lawyers, porn stars, croupiers, tattoo shop-owners, computer whizzes, and a wholesaler who specializes in sextoys for men. People come to Die PARTEI with different motives, but Cörtlen isn’t worried about their political leanings. “There are no Nazis, and for the rest, it’s not a problem, because we have the grey suits and look identical. When we’re in Die PARTEI, we’re in the party. What people do privately doesn’t matter.”
If there’s one trait everyone in the family shares, however, it’s that they think normal parties are scheiße (shit). And although Cörtlen claims that Die PARTEI is a party like all others, he admits they’re at least candid about playing games with their voters. They’ve been promising to rebuild the Berlin Wall for years, and the current platform includes one-liners like, “It’s all Russia’s fault!” and “Why not a Turk? SERDAR 2017.” (The latter refers to this year’s chancellor candidate Serdar Somuncu, a German-Turkish comedian who first became famous for reading Mein Kampf onstage.)
Despite his popularity, Somuncu is unlikely to dethrone Merkel—a relief to uninformed US liberals and a disappointment to left-wing Germans. The September elections are in fact supposed to be rather unexciting. Polls universally predict a fourth term for Merkel and a coalition headed by her party, the CDU. Despite, or perhaps because of this, there’s palpable dissatisfaction among the German left. The more fed-up members are part of what’s driving Die PARTEI’s recent success. People vote for them to protest the status quo without voting for the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), the election’s de facto Nazi party. As Cörtlen explains, they’re “the alternative to alternatives.”
When I ask him what Die PARTEI wants to achieve with satire, he acknowledges that criticism is easier than positive construction. “We’re in the comfortable position where we can say, ‘That’s bad,’ because we’re an opposition party. Saying what is better—that’s up to the other parties.”
But he cautions against dismissing Die PARTEI as unserious. “Our campaign has satirical elements, but the politics of the parties in office are more satirical than anything we could do.” He points to the foreign vehicle toll as one example of satire in the Bundestag. “No one wants this policy. There’s no profit for Germany. It was a terrible idea from some CSU member that was carried out just because it was in the coalition agreement. Nur bullshit.”
When talking about politics and his personal motivations, Cörtlen retains the skepticism and masked idealism of a much younger man. “Truthfully,” he says after a long pause, “I don’t like politicians, and when I see that they get annoyed over our party, it makes me happy. There isn’t much more that I can do as one man.” He also admits that “throwing stones in the streets” had no effect. “If you want to annoy them, you have to play their game.”
But Cörtlen doesn’t identify himself as a politician, despite years of leadership in Die PARTEI. “To be a politician is to strive for power,” he says. “I do the job, but I don’t have the sick mentality.” His goal for the upcoming election is to secure 0.5% in all of Germany. And after that? Cörtlen isn’t concerned about what’ll happen if their members actually win seats in the Bundestag. “The politicians in parliament are not working people. They’re all elites. But their work isn’t so complicated. A normal person with enough information can make the right decisions.”