Berlusconi and Shinawatra: The billionaires who love power more than money

Both earned the lasting enmity of their political establishments yet remained popular

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The twin billionaires of democratic politics are back in the headlines. On Wednesday Silvio Berlusconi, convicted fraudster, was finally heaved out of the Italian Senate. Meanwhile, in Thailand, hundreds of thousands protested against a law that would allow former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been accused of corruption and abuse of power, to return to Bangkok scot-free. It is a good moment to ask whether democracy can survive the attentions of such men.

Both of them fought their way in from the political fringes, earned the lasting enmity of their respective political establishments, yet remain massively popular. Thaksin’s Twitter account describes him as “the longest-serving democratically-elected Prime Minister in Thailand.” Mr Berlusconi can claim the same in Italy. Yet in their contrasting national contexts, both men’s careers illustrate the fatally corrosive  effect that charismatic billionaires can have on democracy.

Of course the democracy has got to be in trouble in the first place, for the billionaire to get his foot in the door. Berlusconi’s entry point was the meltdown of Italy’s established political parties in the bribery scandal known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands). At the time, in the early 1990s, many Italians and not only those on the far left experienced that event as an “Italian Spring”, a purging of decades of accumulated corruption through the actions of fearless public prosecutors; the shattering of the Christian Democratic party; the flight into exile of Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Socialists: all this seemed just retribution for the many years of corruption and clientelism. But it left a gaping vacuum at the heart of national politics. Presenting himself as the nation’s saviour, Berlusconi, already a media tycoon and celebrity, leapt in to fill it.

Two decades on – in which he has been overwhelmingly the most important individual in Italian politics – it is clear that from the outset the size of his fortune was the clinching factor in his stunning success. His billions allowed him to whistle up a political party out of nowhere, staffed and managed by the employees of his media empire. The empire in turn gave him the nation’s most potent soap box. And it was the financial guarantees he was able to provide that persuaded two diametrically opposed political forces, the post-Fascists and the northern secessionists, to forge the most improbable coalition in post-war Europe and enable him to form a government at the first attempt.

So he was a political magician, and remains one to this day, still holding millions of otherwise intelligent Italians in thrall to his image. Though out of the Senate now, no-one imagines we have heard the last of him.

But if his billions allowed him to scale the citadels of power at a single bound, once he had got inside he was useless. He claims to this day that he entered  politics to save the nation, but the less romantic reality is that it was to save his family businesses.

Beyond that task, and the even trickier one of keeping out of jail, he had nothing to give his country, politically speaking. He had no mission. He inveighed against Communists, but communism was  already a spent force. His buzzword was freedom, but he did nothing to dismantle the empires of vested interest, from  the unions to the so-called barons who run the universities to the Mafia gangs that lay waste the south, which had drastically reduced the opportunities for ordinary Italians to fulfil their potential. He presented himself as an icon of aspiration, but the only way he helped others prosper was by cutting tax evaders plenty of slack.

Thaksin Shinawatra, who drew his mass support from Thailand’s rural hinterland, has a better claim than Berlusconi to have been a reforming prime minister. His policies did much to improve the lot of Thailand’s rural poor, who were his main supporters, while doing nothing to harm the mobile phone and other companies  that were the foundation of his fortune.  But as with Berlusconi, his financial  power gave the political playing field a permanent tilt.

Shinawatra has lived outside the country since 2008 but still rules it virtually through his current party, called Pheu Thai. His youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is Prime Minister now, but it is big brother who still calls the shots, issuing orders via a dozen mobile phones, through social networks and by Skype, and summoning his minions for face-to-face meetings when there are important decisions to take.

The huge protests in Thailand this week, which saw his opponents occupy ministries and other government buildings around the country, was in reaction to his sister’s attempt to pass an amnesty law that would have brought Thaksin back from exile and restored the large sums confiscated from  his family in corruption fines. But the protests are themselves a confession of impotence on the part of the opposition, which knows it cannot defeat Thaksin through the ballot box.   

There but for the grace of God go we, we may say. In our worst nightmares we might imagine Rupert Murdoch taking British rather than American nationality, forming the Go Britain! party, abolishing the BBC’s licence fee, armour-plating his companies against the sort of humiliation they (and he) suffered at the Leveson Inquiry.

But then, even if Rupert had fancied his electoral chances, it wasn’t necessary to  go to such lengths: all he needed was  a succession of party leaders scared stiff of his newspapers, and willing to bend the knee.

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