Kim Dotcom could throw a real spanner in the works of this year’s general election. His promised new party is far from certain to get into Parliament, but depending on how well it tickles the fancies of some of the more radical, marginalised, and disillusioned voters and non-voters, the so-called Mega Party could have a huge impact on who forms the next government. [Read more below]
Everyone once in a while a new party emerges out of left-field that disrupts the assumed patterns of politics. Minor parties certainly have a history of coming out of almost nowhere in politics changing the party system.
At the moment the common assumption about the 2014 election is that it’s going to be a battle between the Labour-Greens bloc on the left against a National-Conservatives bloc on the right, with the added uncertainly about the survival and influence of the New Zealand First and Maori parties in the centre. But what could disrupt this simple pattern is the possible rise of Dotcom’s Mega Party. So far there hasn’t been much attention put on the role that this party could play in the 2014 election result, but we need to take it’s possible influence seriously. So far Dotcom has had an incredibly influence on New Zealand politics – from the GCSB fracas through to the legal trials of John Banks – which all suggest that we need to look at what a Dotcom party might represent, what it might aim to do, where its votes might come from, and what affect it might have on coalition formations if the party got elected to Parliament (or indeed what impact it might have if it wins lots of votes but falls short of the 5% threshold).
What does Kim Dotcom hope to achieve?
At this stage it is difficult to establish just what Kim Dotcom wishes to achieve through his promised new political party. Is it a serious bid to win power in Parliament? Would the party want to be part of a Government? Does Dotcom want to influence political debate in New Zealand? Or is the party simply an extension of Dotcom’s general self-serving strategy for protecting himself and furthering his own ego? At this stage it’s hard to see which of these options are motivating Dotcom. His lack of clear statements about what he wants to achieve suggests the latter – that the project is merely part of his idiosyncratic role in public life.
Kim Dotcom and who else might be involved
Kim Dotcom is not a New Zealand citizen, and therefore has absolutely no legal right to stand for election to Parliament. This is extremely unlikely to change any time soon. Dotcom’s public suggestions that he may be able to find a way to stand in this year’s election are somewhat bizarre and suggest that he has little understanding of New Zealand law in this regard.
Without being a parliamentary election candidate, Kim Dotcom might still be able to play a central role in his Mega Party. Even without being a candidate, there is nothing to stop Dotcom being the party leader, or perhaps even the party president. Even if the party eventually gained parliamentary representation, in theory there’s no reason he couldn’t continue to be the leader. Even the Green Party was led by a non-MP for a while – Russel Norman was elected as co-leader of the Greens in 2006. And founders of parties don’t always become their leaders standing for Parliament. For instance, Roger Douglas founded the Act Party in the mid-1990s, but it was Richard Prebble that became the leader and successfully stood for Parliament in the first MMP election of 1996. Similarly, Brian Tamaki founded the Destiny New Zealand political party, but another member of his church, Richard Lewis, was the leader and candidate in elections.
There are plenty of rumours around about who else might be getting involved in Dotcom’s Mega Party. A well-known broadcast journalist is said to have agreed to stand as a candidate for the party this year. There will also be a number of other bloggers and political activists that will gravitate towards the fledgling new party. Certainly, with Dotcom unable to stand himself, he will need some other high-profile and impressive candidates to head the party list.
What the party might stand for and what its policies might be
The politics of the mega party will be interesting. Clearly Dotcom isn't going to be aligned with John Key and National, but presumably the ethos of his party leans towards the libertarian. It is hard to imagine him warming to a Labour/Greens more interventionist style of government. The $50K donation to John Banks as Mayor of Auckland indicates a rightwing bent, or at least a willingness to work with rightwing and conservative politicians. On privacy and spying, of course, Labour's track record is virtually indistinguishable from National.
If he is successful then he will be taking votes of other parties mostly so there will be hostility – especially from the Greens whose core demographic would overlap in many ways. Act has more to lose in theory but they have actually pretty much lost most of their constituency anyway – may ensure their complete destruction. Probably the biggest threat is to any new rightwing party set up to replace Act.
But more than anything the Mega Party may have some appeal to those who wouldn't otherwise vote. At the last election there was about a million New Zealanders that were eligible to vote, but who chose not to (for whatever reason). These will be people that are strongly courted by Dotcom.
Dotcom could stand on principle and keep his distance from both major parties but in what looks to be a very tight election the question will inevitably be put as to which he would support in government. The answer would be interesting.
There is likely to be a libertarian ideology at the centre of the Mega Party’s platform. This libertarianism is not so much of the economic kind, but of the social kind – the belief that the state shouldn’t be concerned with the public’s personal lives. Such social libertarians typically promote the abolition of laws against recreation drug use, the abolition of censorship laws, but are particularly strong against forms of state surveillance against citizens. For Dotcom, this is a natural extension of his fight for ‘digital rights’ and for liberal rules about internet communications.
The Mega Party’s potential for success
It’s hard to imagine any Mega Party candidate having any chance of winning a constituency seat at the election. The party will be far too polarising, controversial, and perhaps obscure. Dotcom will therefore be focused on winning the party vote. But 5% is a formidable threshold. Dotcom has the profile and, presumably quite a bit of funding but history suggests money alone isn’t enough.
Dotcom’s celebrity profile will be an important campaigning device, and the likely key to any possible success. All over the world, celebrities from the world of entertainment, media, sport and commerce are becoming more and more powerful in electoral politics. So Dotcom’s leverage of his fame is entirely in line with what is happening elsewhere, and it’s certainly to be taken seriously.
If it launches with some traction in the polls then the top candidates can expect their pasts to be raked over in some detail by the media and political opponents. This is always a challenge for new high profile political parties in their first campaign. Libertarians are particularly susceptible to publishing sometimes extremist views openly – so some past views could pop up to embarrass those involved in the party.
Does Dotcom have time to successfully establish a new party?
Some commentators are writing off the Mega Party due to the fact that it hasn’t been launched before the start of election year. It’s true that time is short, and realistically Dotcom won't have time to build much of an organisation on the ground in time for the election.
But modern politics operates incredibly quickly. All over the world, parties are established quickly and fortunes in electoral politics can shift quickly. Partly this is due to the changing media and technology environment. Campaigns and organization can be quickly built and communicated these days. For Dotcom, any campaign would probably be very centrally managed and run but focus on social media and a high media profile. What’s more, political parties are no longer mass membership parties that move slowly.
Also, it’s worth remembering that other successful parties have sprung up quickly in the past. For example, New Zealand First was formed in July 1993, and fought the 1996 general election four months later in November, winning 8% of the vote.
It is quite conceivable that a Dotcom Mega Party could even launch itself property in the middle of the year (after a superficial launch in January), gain huge media publicity, and have a so-called honeymoon with the public through to the election. But it really is a question of whether such a new party can capture the imaginations of New Zealanders as offering something a bit different to what is already on offer. If Dotcom can show some flair, excitement, and relate that to people’s lives and some of the major political issues of the day, then there’s every reason to believe that he could ride of wave of great interest that would get him over the 5% MMP threshold. It’s worth remembering that in 2002 Peter Dunne managed to catch the imagination of enough voters to take his party to suddenly win 6.7% of the party vote. Sometimes election campaigns throw up surprising new forces, and this year that could well be Kim Dotcom.