Kim Dotcom’s foray into the tiny and normally rather placid world of New Zealand politics brought global interest to the South Pacific nation’s recent election – culminating with the involvement of other outside heavyweights, including NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Ultimately the über-wealthy German immigrant went head to head with the country’s prime minister – and lost. Dotcom ended up failing spectacularly – describing himself as political “poison.” His Internet Mana alliance, personally bankrolled by Dotcom to the tune of nearly NZ$5 million ($3.9 million), failed to win a single seat in New Zealand’s 120-seat parliament in elections held on September 20.
Outwardly, Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party campaigned against mass surveillance and for free tertiary education and marijuana law reform. But by the end, New Zealand voters saw through the party – officially registered only in May this year – and deemed it a vanity project designed only to win Dotcom enough political support to hold the balance of power under the country’s proportional voting system and veto his extradition to the U.S. An unusual alliance with Mana, a leftist party advocating for the interests of New Zealand’s underprivileged indigenous Maori, seemed like a bold tactical move on paper, but was a disaster in practice. Dotcom’s flamboyant lifestyle and seemingly limitless cash ended up destroying Mana’s credibility of standing up for the downtrodden.
Dotcom, who moved to New Zealand in 2010, rose to prominence in the small island nation through an unusually lavish lifestyle and a habit for splashing cash amongst the country’s elite. The German shelled out NZ$500,000 to sponsor fireworks welcoming in 2011 in New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland. And he gave $NZ50,000 to high-profile Auckland mayoral candidate John Banks – a donation that later became the subject of intense scrutiny after it was revealed Banks, later a key government minister, had illegally declared it as anonymous. Dotcom, offended by Banks’ refusal to acknowledge his generosity, later testified against him in court. Banks lost.
The need to win powerful friends became particularly evident to Dotcom after the Hollywood-style raid of his luxurious mansion north of Auckland in January 2012. The raid, carried out by New Zealand police with the help of FBI agents, saw Dotcom arrested on copyright and racketeering charges – and facing extradition to the U.S. Released on bail, Dotcom mounted a none-too-subtle public relations campaign to win sympathy with the New Zealand public – including hosting “Swim with Kim” pool-parties at his home and recording several pieces of original music, such as a song poking fun at John Banks. For New Zealanders with a soft spot for an underdog, Dotcom was the perfect puckish rogue.
Initially, New Zealanders seemed curious about the “man everyone wants,” as he was announced at his election rallies. Dotcom’s personal celebrity and charisma shook up election year, in a country where successful politicians typically pride themselves on a managerial style more characteristic of bank managers. Dotcom’s non-conformist attitude became apparent when the Internet Party took politics into nightclubs with a series of “party parties.” Attracted by the music and eager to meet and take a selfie with Dotcom himself, young New Zealand voters flocked to the country’s nightlife venues.
Ironically, it was one of these dance parties that laid the ground for Kim Dotcom’s downfall. Dotcom led party-goers in a repeated chant against the country’s center-right prime minister, John Key. A video of the “f**k John Key” chant was uploaded to the official YouTube account for Internet Mana and widely circulated through social media. But many New Zealand voters appeared disgusted by the negative campaigning against an enormously popular incumbent. Since 2008, Key had leveraged his down-home image and his disarming, self-deprecating sense of humor to steer New Zealand through tough economic times and the destruction caused by two major earthquakes. Key’s personal popularity with centrist voters was such that it came as no surprise to watchers when his National Party mounted a presidential-style re-election campaign, using the slogan “Team Key.” Against Key’s “nice guy” image, the abuse being hurled by Dotcom seemed jarring.
And there were other examples of nastiness: a “burning effigy” of John Key, never formally linked to Internet Mana, was frequently cited by the prime minister as evidence of Dotcom’s unsavory tactics, along with apparent death threats. Dotcom also clashed with his own Internet Party leader, Laila Harre, after he tweeted a “joke” about killing a prostitute. And at Internet Mana’s campaign launch in August, a party press secretary angrily called a journalist a “puffed up little sh*t” – an outburst which led that night’s television news bulletins.
Not all the blame for the failure of Internet Mana can be laid at Dotcom’s door. It was never clear how the joint venture between Hone Harawira’s Mana, a far-left party based around improving the lot of disadvantaged Maori, and Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party, which had been targeting educated, urban and predominantly white voters, fitted together. By the election, the purple branding and original startup feel of the Internet Party – which let members determine policy via a Reddit-style online platform – had all but been subsumed by the hard-left Mana, at the behest of Harawira. The result was a strange mix of Maori nationalism, sprinkled with old style socialism and pictures of children clutching iPads.
But in the end, Internet Mana’s fortunes rose and fell with those of Kim Dotcom. By the time his much touted “Moment of Truth” public meeting took place on September 15, five days before the election, most voters had grown tired of what seemed like a sideshow. The cast of foreigners – including U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, as well as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden – revealed a host of eye-popping claims about New Zealand’s role in international spying, through the “Five Eyes” alliance with the United States. But for most voters, their presence only served to underline Dotcom’s own foreignness and that he was improperly interfering in another country’s election. If he had initially been given the benefit of the doubt as a charming renegade, Dotcom was now the angry guest who had outstayed his welcome.
Key summed up in blunt terms what most voters thought about the “Moment of Truth,” telling a radio station: “Dotcom is trying to save Dotcom’s butt, and it’s a reasonably large one so he’s bought in all of these people, three little butts to save his butt, and it won’t work but they’ll say and do anything and bamboozle people.” The fact that no credible proof emerged at the “Moment of Truth” to support Dotcom’s much promised “big reveal” – which revolved around an outlandish conspiracy theory that New Zealand had granted him residency only to make it easier for the United States to extradite him – only added to voters’ impression that he was a charlatan.
In May, Kim Dotcom described his pet political party as his “gift to New Zealand.” On election night, he was forced to concede that his very brand had been toxic. For John Key, Dotcom turned out to be the gift that kept on giving. New Zealand voters’ loathing of Kim Dotcom and his tainting of the country’s left played no small part in delivering Key’s center-right National Party a landslide victory. After the election, a jubilant Key had only one piece of advice for the defeated Dotcom. “Go away.”
Geoffrey Miller is a New Zealand lecturer at the Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. During the election campaign, he was a researcher in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMillerNZ.