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Thailand and Italy: Curious Partners?

How much do both countries’ Prime Ministers have in common?

March 28, 2002

How much do both countries' Prime Ministers have in common?

Thailand’s electorate had long been disgusted by economic blight and political crises in their nation. So, in January 2001, it opted for a businessman to rule their country. Voters reasoned that if media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra could create a highly successful business, perhaps he could build a more efficient and fiscally healthy Thailand.

Italy has already chosen a similar path in 1994. Italian voters put Silvio Berlusconi, a successful Italian businessman, into that nation’s Prime Minister post. He was elected once again in May 2001 — only four months after Mr. Thaksin took office in Thailand.

Messrs. Berlusconi and Thaksin share some uncanny similarities. Both are largely self-made men who have becoming the wealthiest citizens in their respective countries. Moreover, they achieved this distinction in the same business — the media.

Mr. Thaksin owns Thailand’s only private television network. Mr. Berlusconi’s media empire, Fininvest, presents the only real alternative to Italy’s state-owned RAI television network.

To win their elections, both moguls turned politicians formed new political parties. Mr. Thaksin called his party “Thai Rak Thai” — which means Thais Love Thai People. Mr. Berlusconi struck a similarly nationalistic note. He called his party “Forza Italia” — capitalizing on the popularity of Italian soccer fans’ chant (“Let’s go, Italy!”) in support of the country’s national team.

And wouldn’t you know it — both men took office under a cloud of criminal investigation. Mr. Berlusconi’s first government, back in 1994, resigned after only a few months in office. Trials for corruption and tax bribery continue to dog him. Allegations against Thailand’s Thaksin include the claim that he uses official trips as Prime Minister to promote his private business agenda.

Amazingly, both prime ministers share a similar ability to blend politics and their own business. Despite political pressure, Mr. Berlusconi has chosen to retain ties to his media empire while in office. Likewise, Mr. Thaksin is also still very much in the thick of his family business.

Both politician-businessmen have also brought their highly authoritarian and personal styles of running a business. They have staffed their governments in part with cronies and sycophants. And like many self-made men, Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Berlusconi dislike criticism. For both prime ministers, nationalism is a way to deflect any critiques.

The Thai government, for instance, expelled two journalists from the Far Eastern Economic Review journalists when they dared to write things about Mr. Thaksin that he did not enjoy reading. Mr. Berlusconi has struck a euroskeptic tone to deflect attention from his shortcomings.

But such similarities may not be so surprising if we look at the countries in question. Historically and culturally, Italy and Thailand are quite similar — despite their great distance from each and vastly different cultural heritages.

Both countries present a sweet and somewhat vulnerable façade — which, in reality, conceals a history of great political cunning and ruthlessness. In particular, both Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Thaksin appear to have absorbed the teachings of another great Italian — the 16th century political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli.

After all, Machiavelli was obsessed with tracing the roots and uses of power. He titled his famous book on that subject The Prince. Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Thaksin are princes in the business world. And they have used success in the commercial sector to ascend to the heights of power — and make some history as well. March 28, 2002