Is Berlusconi Back Again? Trying To Make Sense Of Italy's Latest Political Turmoil

Il Cavaliere, back in the spotlight
Il Cavaliere, back in the spotlight
Alessandro Barbara

ROME - For a foreigner who doesn’t understand the Byzantinism of Italian politics, it will seem paradoxical: as of yesterday, the majority that has kept Mario Monti’s government in place is suddenly hanging by a thread, even as the main economic packages were approved by the legislature.

And now, elections could be right around the corner, with none other than Silvio Berlusconi -- who had just two months ago declared his intention never to run again -- standing as the likely center-right candidate.

The fuse it appears was lit by just a few words from Minister for Economic Development Corrado Passera during an appearance on an early morning TV show. Asked to comment on a scenario of Silvio Berlusconi running again for Prime Minister, for the fifth time, the cabinet member in Monti's "technical" government, let slip a political judgment.

“Everything we do that makes the world think we’re going backwards isn’t good for Italy," he said. "We have to give the feeling that the country is going forward.”

This sentence triggers the interest of Berlusconi and his allies in the People's Freedom Party (PDL); and at 11 a.m., PDL Senate leader Maurizio Gasparri announced his abstention from voting for the confidence measure.

The confidence vote passes, but without support of the PDL, which means the government was suddenly without a working majority. Democratic party leader in the Senate, Anna Finocchiaro, called on Monti to confer with the President of the Republic.

The same situation repeats again a few hours later in the Lower House of Parliament. The majority is there, but only just technically. PDL leader Fabrizio Cicchitto, tried to move away from the theory of Passera being a “detonator”, except to call him “a bull.”

Schism risk

In both houses, it emerges that there are some PDL members splitting off, willing to vote Yes in the confidence measure: notably former Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. The government holds, yet the markets react as if it had fallen: the public bond spread rises 330 points over quota, twenty more than the day before. When the stock exchange closed, it was down 0.75% in contrast to gains in other European markets.

Democratic party leader Pierluigi Bersani and centrist leader Pierferdinand Casini try to reverse the momentum gathering against Monti, meeting the Prime Minister face-to-face and confirmed their “loyalty to the government” until the natural expiration of the term later in 2013.

Still, Monti was forced to admit the difficulties, “I have taken note of the positive vote on the economic reforms and now I await the findings of the President of the Republic.”

Napolitano reportedly said: “Don’t end it, I’m opposed to a frenzied end to the term.”

PDL leader Angelino Alfano has made it clear that the party will guarantee the majority only until the stability pact law is approved at Christmas: “We’re worried for the economic situation and so have given a clear signal.”

The PDL’s irritation with the government was already apparent a few days before, when in the Senate the vote on economic measures was sunk by those loyal to Berlusconi. Passera's comment simply helped to solidify a party at serious risk of schism.

The other fuse is the green light on the decree to declare the ineligibility of members of Parliament and ministers who have been convicted definitively, a topic that for weeks has divided both the government and political parties. Casini and leaders of the Democratic Party say that the return of Berlusconi, who has had a decades-long war with magistrates -- that his return is really about this.

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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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