Silvio Berlusconi’s Long And Bitter Twilight

Editorial: Berlusconi’s use of the political system to fight his personal battles has become so overwhelming that little else is pursued in Italian public life. Tale of a nation blocked by one man’s troubles.

Silvio Berlusconi’s Long And Bitter Twilight
Michele Brambilla

Following last week's approval of a justice reform bill to shorten the statute of limitations, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced his next legislative moves will be to target the use of wiretapping in criminal investigations and a reform of the entire justice system.

This is just the latest disheartening proof that Italian politics has become a personal business. This privatization of politics no longer surprises anyone. By now, we are all accustomed and resigned to the fact that Silvio Berlusconi will use the political system to satisfy his personal vendettas.

Italian politics at this point is just a war: you are either for or against the Prime Minister. Everything revolves around him. The government and the parliament's activities, the most important judicial inquiries, the demonstrations in the streets, the press campaigns, the parties' debates: they are all about him.

Berlusconi even influences our national religion, soccer. Berlusconi's approval rating could rise or fall depending upon whether his club AC Milan wins the national championship, or whether he buys star striker Cristiano Ronaldo. It is always all about him. In Italy, people speak and fight only about Berlusconi.

Those who love him, defend him no matter what. They say the trials against him are based on the fabrications of ‘Communist" judges. And even when he is guilty of something, his supporters say: "Everyone does it." Those who hate him think that he is responsible for all the world's evils. In the movie "La bellezza del somaro" The beauty of the donkey by Sergio Castellito, a character lashes out against Berlusconi because a drinks dispenser is jammed. "What has Berlusconi to do with it?" asks the Laura Morante character. "It is always about Berlusconi," he answers.

Never before in the history of the Italian republic has one person been under the spotlight and monopolized the political stage for so long.

For these reasons, when Berlusconi assembled his coalition government's group leaders at his private residence in Rome last week, no one was surprised to hear that the government's agenda and his personal agenda are identical. In the last months, the Italian Parliament and Senate have been busy with the Prime Minister's personal affairs. So despite Italy's many troubles, a Prime Minister asking his allies to work full-time for him is accepted as normal. The bills about wiretapping, removing powers from the prosecutors and punishing judges are all in the personal interest of Berlusconi.

"We have the majority to pass these bills," the Prime Minister has repeatedly said over the last months. Despite governmental crisis and notable departures from the coalition, the government still maintains its majority. What for? It does not use its majority to pursue social programs, to help troubled companies and workers, or to fulfill its promises on lower taxes and a lighter state. The government is so obsessed with a private matter that it does not use its majority for pursuing any of these issues that the country needs to address.

Despite their strong majority, Berlusconi and his government do not look like winners. Today's Berlusconi has little to do with the man who had Italians dreaming of their future two decades ago. Today, a dark and angry atmosphere hovers over the country. While this could signal the last days of the empire, Berlusconi's ability to survive should not be underestimated. It is an atmosphere of twilight: where the leader has not yet met his end, but the country is held hostage by his psychodrama.

Read the original article in Italian.

Photo - EPP

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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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