How Matteo Renzi Broke Every Rule Of Italian Politics

(And why that's a good thing)

Renzi has risen in record time
Renzi has risen in record time
Federico Geremicca

ROME — It has already been noted: that if confirmed by the President of the Republic, Matteo Renzi would be the youngest ever Italian Prime Minister. But the sheer volume of adjectives, hyperbole and metaphors raining down are about something more than just his age: because at Palazzo Chigi, the Italian Prime Minister’s official residence, an alien may be about to land.

We can use the term alien, because this is a leader who works in a radically different way, and is guided by a different philosophy, than those who have come before him in Italy"s own unique brand of politics.

On Thursday, the 39-year-old leader of the Democratic Party (PD) disposed of the sitting government led by now outgoing Prime Minister Enrico Letta in a meeting that lasted barely 20 minutes. Usually the introduction of Italian politicians' speeches take that long.

The way he announced his intentions to challenge Letta, also a PD member, revealed his way of tackling questions: “You know the emails that I get with the concerned advice: ‘Matteo, be careful. Matteo, you might get burned.’ I understand the sense but if I hadn’t risked anything then today I would still be at the provincial government in Florence.”

Indeed, Renzi has risen over the past five years to national prominence after ignoring advice to stay in his secondary role in the provincial government of Florence, to successfully challenge for the mayor's job of the Tuscan city – and ultimately winning the vote to become national leader of the center-left PD last year.

It is because of this logic of how he speaks and interprets politics that objections have been put forward about this man, and his lack of political decorum. It’s not that Renzi doesn't agree with those old standards, it's that he simply doesn't understand them.

Scrap heap

If we take the word that has largely defined his rise to power – "rottamazione" (the "scrapping" of the old leadership) – most have focused on the lack of elegance, and even violence, of the term. But what most have failed to understand is that this word is perfectly in tune with the current state of mind of the country.

But now, looking forward, the biggest (and most worrying) issue is what is to be expected of a Prime Minister who currently does not hold a seat in Parliament, who has never been a cabinet minister, who has no international experience? For now, there’s only one answer, and it’s based on Renzi’s journey so far: expect surprises.

If these surprises are good for the country, it’s one thing, but if they’re not, it won’t take long for signs to start showing.

Presumably, Renzi has already given some thought about which steps to take first, and in which direction to try to lead the country. No doubt, these steps could be influenced by the presence of other forces in the current coalition government. Center-right leader Angelino Alfano, Silvio Berlusconi’s former ally, recently declared: “If gay marriage is legalized, we’ll pull out of the coalition.”

Finding a balance between change and the interests of the supporting parties is not easy. Still, Thursday's announcement spoke about “the duty of a radical change,” and that’s what will be remembered.

In any case, Renzi’s race to the top is now over. It happened in record speed. The scrap dealer has scrapped everyone he's met along the road between the town hall in Florence and Palazzo Chigi in Rome. His enemies, both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, have tried to stop him with all the old tricks. There are those who never understood him, and others who pretended not to understand. The result is there for everyone to see: and for now, for Italy, it doesn't look so bad at all.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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