Kim Dotcom strides on to the stage at a Wellington nightclub, turning a late-night dance party into a political rally. “Are you ready for a re-vo-lu-tion!” the internet tycoon, who faces extradition to the US on piracy charges, booms to the 200 partygoers. “Don’t let your parents decide who rules this country.”
The millionaire entrepreneur and convicted fraudster, whose Megaupload file-sharing site was shut down in 2012 after a police raid, is emerging as an unlikely power broker in New Zealand politics ahead of the election on 20 September. In a race that may be determined by just a few seats, Mr Dotcom is exploiting a loophole in the electoral system in an effort to oust Prime Minister John Key from office.
Mr Key, who’s seeking a third term, says Mr Dotcom is trying to buy political influence to avoid extradition. The part-time techno musician says he’s fighting for internet privacy after Edward Snowden’s revelations of US spying.
“It’s extraordinary,” said Bryce Edwards, a political scientist at Otago University in Dunedin. “New Zealand isn’t used to these plots of international intrigue, big money and brash personalities.”
Mr Dotcom’s nascent Internet Party, bankrolled with NZ$3m (£1.5m) of his own money, has entered an alliance with the Mana Party, led by a Maori activist, to form the Internet Mana Party, boosting his chances of gaining political clout.
Internet Mana kicked off its election campaign in Auckland on 24 August, promising 50,000 new digital jobs if it is part of the next government.
While German-born Mr Dotcom, 40, can’t stand for parliament himself, polling shows Internet Mana could win as many as five seats – a decisive bloc, whose support the main opposition Labour Party would probably need to form a government.
Internet Mana says it fights for “the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed,” among whom New Zealand’s indigenous Maori are over-represented. The Internet Party’s flagship policy is to deliver ultra-fast, cheaper web connections with greater freedom and privacy.
The combination has the potential to mobilise young people who wouldn’t normally vote, said former Labour Party president Mike Williams: “It could change the outcome of the election.”
The Internet Mana alliance is “totally illegitimate” and amounts to Mr Dotcom buying his party entry to parliament, Russel Norman, co-leader of the Green Party – Labour’s biggest ally – said in an interview. “This is money undermining democracy.”
Sue Bradford, a veteran political activist for the underprivileged, said that’s one of the reasons she left Mana when it teamed up with Mr Dotcom.
“It’s attempting to buy political influence and power,” she said. “I also saw Kim Dotcom’s beliefs as fundamentally incompatible with the principles of Mana.”
Mr Dotcom, who changed his name from Kim Schmitz, has been convicted of computer fraud, data espionage, stealing business secrets and receiving stolen goods, according to New Zealand Security Intelligence Service documents.
After the dawn raid on his mansion in January 2012, involving two helicopters and officers armed with assault rifles, he was indicted in Virginia for what prosecutors called the biggest case of copyright infringement in US history.
They allege that Megaupload, which once accounted for 4 per cent of all internet traffic, generated more than $175m (£105m) in criminal proceeds from the exchange of pirated films, music and files. Five Hollywood studios are seeking more than $100m in a separate civil case.
The final decision on Mr Dotcom’s extradition, which is due to be heard by a court in February, rests with the Justice Minister.
Mr Dotcom denies he’s trying to gain political influence to avoid extradition, and says he’s motivated by Megaupload’s closure and the extent of US spying revealed by former security contractor Mr Snowden.
“Those combined events made me decide to engage politically,” he said in an interview last month at Wellington’s James Cabaret nightclub. “My case is very political … they are trying to make me responsible for the actions of my users.”
James Dicks, 19, who attended Dotcom’s party, said he would consider voting for Internet Mana.
“Kim Dotcom was possibly breaking the law,” he said. “But if you are going to punish people for illegally downloading movies, then you’d be punishing everyone.”
Mr Dotcom and his lawyers claim the prosecution is, “propelled by the White House’s desire to mollify the motion picture industry in exchange for campaign contributions,” and that the New Zealand government is beholden to its US ally.
New Zealand gave Mr Dotcom residency in 2010 despite knowing he was the subject of an FBI investigation. The declassified papers have prompted speculation that Mr Key’s government granted Mr Dotcom residency at the behest of the US, as it would be easier to extradite him from New Zealand.