Tag Archives: democracy

Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment

A political earthquake struck Italy this summer as alliances shifted between bitter rivals in the country’s complicated multiparty system. Power plays, miscalculations and surprise deals made for juicy media headlines, but the most important lesson for the world may lie in the way one particular populist party allows technocrats to substitute technological farce for representative democracy. Though the crisis for government control made global headlines, the internal dynamics are somewhat difficult for outsiders to understand. In his 2015 book The Italians, author John Hopper observed that the turbulent surface of Italian politics may be by design. “[in Italian politics] issues remain arguable, and thus negotiable.” he wrote. “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

In August, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League Party created the most recent “turbulent surface” by making moves to bring down the coalition government in hopes he would then win a snap election. Despite his soaring popularity, an unlikely coalition led by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement thwarted his attempt to gain control. 5-Star and its center-left former rival, the Democratic Party (PD), looked past their differences to freeze Salvini out completely. However temporary, sidelining Salvini and the League was a surprising outcome considering the rise of right-wing parties and leaders in Europe over the past few years. Many of these parties, including Salvini’s, have both overt or revealed links to Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin.

The “Non-Party” 5-Star Movement

Far from being a typical political party, the 5-Star Movement is a self-styled “anti-party” group that European journalist Darren Loucaides said “tapped deeply into one of the most powerful forces in Italian politics: disgust with Italian politics. Rather than offer an ideology or platform, Five Star offered a wholesale rebuke of the country’s entrenched, highly paid, careerist political class—left, right, and center.” A grassroots, populist movement, 5-Star emulated the profane style of its famous comedian co-founder, Bepe Grillo, calling some of its early events V-Days, a play on both the 2005 dystopian film “V for Vendetta” and a popular Italian vulgarity. Initially, the five stars in the group’s name referred to its policy priorities: sustainable transportation and development, public water, universal internet access, and environmentalism. Over the past 15 years however, that platform has expanded to include term limits, preventing those with criminal convictions from running for office, and now also a Universal Basic Income concept similar to the one making headlines in the 2020 US Presidential Race thanks to candidate Andrew Yang. Not so flatteringly, 5-Star has also been connected to anti-vaccination laws, the Brexit campaign, and American political operative Steve Bannon.


“When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the 5 Star Movement, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so.”


Though Grillo was the public face of the movement for years, the man that truly orchestrated its rise to power was an unknown Italian entrepreneur and political activist named Gianroberto Casaleggio. Casaleggio used Grillo’s fame, straightforward internet blogs, and the Meetup.com platform to create a “grand techno-utopian project…an online voting and debate portal.” Casaleggio hoped to make the elected Italian Parliament obsolete, putting the power to legislate in the hands of the Italian people through their computers and smart devices. As Louciades wrote in Wired, as early as 2001 Casaleggio surmised technology would fundamentally change governments and politics, creating greater transparency and political accountability to the will of the people. He envisioned “interactive leaders” that deal directly with the masses, bypassing the media and its role as an interpreter. In Casaleggio’s view, a natural consequence of cutting out the media middleman would be the “imminent demise of journalism.” Society would be able to see politics as it truly is, not the “virtual reality” the media creates. He did not mince words: “Overcoming representative democracy” he said, “is therefore inevitable.”

Philosophers and Technocrats

Casaleggio named his direct democracy platform after the eighteenth century Enlightenment author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and set its launch date for April 13th, 2016. Unfortunately for Casaleggio, he died two days before its debut and would never know how Rousseau became central to the rise of the 5-Star Movement in Italian politics. Rousseau creates democracy without the use of intermediaries or the centuries-old political caste by allowing members to vote for candidates, create referendums on party decisions, propose and debate laws, and participate in fund-raising. As the internet and smart devices make the world ever more interconnected, the potential for these tools to facilitate direct democracy could mean drastic change for governance and politics. An idealist may believe that these systems, when integrated with blockchain or online-banking style security, could empower more voters and bring participation levels to new highs. A skeptic would counter that replacing representative democracy with internet-enabled direct democracy actually creates opportunities for coercion, cybercrime, and consolidation of political power in the hands of a few powerful technocrats.

Ironically, the 5-Star Movement has been roundly criticized for pioneering this technique though it directly contradicts their populist aims. When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the Movement, in part to cut the middlemen out of Italian politics, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so. However, with power and information strictly controlled by a small group of technocrats at Milan-based Casaleggio Associates, 5-Star stands accused of silencing dissent. Italian author Silvia Mazzini compared Beppe Grillo to a populist dictator, ushering in new party members then threatening to ostracize or punish them if they do not support his ideas. Despite espousing a desire to empower the common citizen, Casaleggio Associates hand-picks candidates for the Rousseau elections without any transparency whatsoever. There are however, more obvious problems using Rousseau as a mechanism for direct democracy. In July 2019 there were only 100,000 active members on the platform, a tiny fraction of the 10.7 million Italians that voted for the 5-Star Movement in the 2018 general election. These are underwhelming numbers, even in a country where one out of four people still lack access to the internet.

The Future of Online Voting and Direct Democracy

Though access and participation are problematic, security is perhaps a bigger concern. Rousseau suffered several high profile cyber attacks in the run up to elections in 2017 and 2018. Hackers stole members’ information and even published phone numbers and passwords of party leaders in what was probably an attempt to intimidate voters and candidates. In response, the Italian data protection authority fined Casaleggio Associates for failing to fix several security flaws in their system. Italy is hardly the only nation experimenting with risky technology in the democratic process. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center released a report that, among other things, concluded “mobile and internet voting technologies are not presently secure enough for large-scale applications. Nevertheless, nations like Ukraine are “moving forward with integrating blockchain-based online voting into their national election systems in efforts to increase security and prevent voter fraud.”

Italy is the first large western republic to utilize an internet-based technological platform that purports to expand democracy on a national scale. As other republics around the world grapple with new wave populism featuring interactive leaders that use social media to bypass traditional filters, the integrity of democratic voting processes becomes a paramount concern. Italy’s ongoing experiment with Rousseau demonstrates that the security vulnerabilities of online platforms and limitations on participation, access, and transparency inherent in these technologies can make some voters more equal than others. The world will do well to look deeper and decide if this is truly an expansion of democracy or actually, as Gianroberto Casaleggio predicted, “democracy overcome.”


Wilhelm JaredJared Wilhelm is a Foreign Area Officer and former Naval Aviator who lives in Italy. He is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, was named a 2014 Olmsted Scholar, and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own and do not represent the views or position of any other entity. He has previously published numerous articles on democracy around the world, including Some More Equal than Others.

Tangled Conflict: Thailand

The Western media does not understand the bombings in Thailand.

On August 12, 2016, a series of thirteen bombs killed four Thai nationals and injured 35 people in the popular tourist towns of Hua Hin, Surat Thani, Phuket, and Trang. Thai officials claim this is a continuation of the Islamic separatist question in Thailand’s deep south, though the investigation is still underway. A quick search of articles about the bombings in Thailand will provide a myriad of articles that suggest the bombing is an indicator of an unpopular military regime or that Muslim extremism has spread throughout Southern Thailand. In reality, the bombings are just a small bump on the long road of conflict between ethnically-Malay Muslims of the Greater Pattani Region of southern Thailand and the Thai — Buddhist — controlled national government. 

In a narrow sense, the bombings highlight a regional displeasure with the 2016 constitution referendum vote. More broadly, however, they emphasize the international community’s neglect of the substantive issue, specifically Thai ethnic policy that some researchers suggest has contributed to the deaths of nearly 7,000 people since 2004. The media, in search of a reason for the bombings that confirms Western bias against Islam, disregards the complicated geographical and historical context which drives this conflict. Thai ethnic policy, responsible for the creation of the Thai nation-state and its successful independence from Western colonialism, is paradoxically also the catalyst for unrest. 

Context is Everything

Although the attacks threaten to affect one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies, Thailand’s greater problem is one of national unity. The Thai government believes the cohesion of the country rests on the strength of a national identity to unify the varied ethnic groups in peripheral regions where ancient historical relationships determined cultural identity. Until the 1850s, many people living within the boundaries of Thailand (or Siam) did not identify themselves as Siamese but rather by the identities of former kingdoms or villages. For example, some in the present North Region still identify with the Lanna Kingdom, while the Khmer Empire still influences the present East Region. Religion and mother-tongue, derived from these kingdoms, further shapes that dynamic.

thailand-map-5
The Greater Pattani Region’s Center-Periphery Geography. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.

Like the other peripheral regions, the Greater Pattani Region is culturally and ethnically distinct from its Thai/Siamese neighbor to the north. In Greater Pattani, 83% of the population speaks Pattani-Malay (Yawi), while only 13% speak the Central Thai Dialect. The religious distinction of Greater Pattani is even more acute, with 94% of the population identifying as Muslim, forming an Islamic island in an overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand. Historically a Muslim Sultanate, the Pattani Region paid tribute to the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350-1767). The Pattani Sultanate maintained relative autonomy due to center-to-periphery distance from Ayutthaya and the Nakhon Si Thammarat mountains that physically isolate the region from the rest of Thailand. The series of Burmese-Siamese wars from 1547-1701 allowed the Pattani Sultanate to accumulate prestige and wealth as a regional trade center until the Chakri Dynasty of Siam subordinated the Sultanate in the 1700s.

European colonization drastically changed the political environment in Southeast Asia by the late 1800s. Fearing external influence, the Thai government, under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), instituted a civic reform in 1906 that delimited provinces and districts and replaced local leaders with central government representatives that spoke only Thai. This reform sought to unify Thailand’s own ethnic identity through enforced standards of linguistic, educational, and religious behavior; standards that further alienated Greater Pattani. Though many Pattani-Muslims hoped to represent themselves in the newly-created Thai National Assembly, their participation was deterred by policies that required Muslim officials to have Thai names, prohibited their Muslim attire, enforced a nationalist curriculum in all school systems, and subjugated Islamic courts to provincial governors.

Missing the Target

The bloodless revolution of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchical rule in Thailand, but was a missed opportunity for integration. Several social activist groups including Gabongan Melayu Pattani Raya — GAMPAR — (1944) and the Pattani People’s Movement — PPM — (1947) came into being in the politically turbulent aftermath of the Second World War. Tensions worsened in 1948 when approximately 1,000 Pattani-Muslims attacked Thai National Police forces at Dusun Nyor, Narathiwat resulting in the death of 400 attackers and 30 police officers. As Thai ethnic policy remained firm, Pattani-Muslims created more separatist groups including the Betubuhan Perpaduan Pembebasan Pattani (PULO) in 1968 and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in 1974, both of which relied upon violent attacks and assassinations to advance their separatist agendas.

Seeking to quell the violence from separatist groups, Prime Minister Prem Thinsulanond instituted a number of social programs, including the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) in 1981. Though these measures provided an outlet for grievances and were largely successful, local administrators heavily abused and misappropriated funding. In 2004, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a northerner, terminated the SBPAC claiming the southern insurgency had mostly dissipated. SBPAC’s closure however undermined what leaders of the Pattani Region viewed as a social compact between them and the Prem administration.

The Greater Pattani Region and Major Counterinsurgency Incidents. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.
The Greater Pattani Region and Major Counterinsurgency Incidents. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.

A cycle of violence ensued. In January 2004, 30 Pattani-Muslim separatists attacked a Royal Thai Army (RTA) post killing four soldiers and stealing a large quantity of weapons. In response, Prime Minister Thaksin declared martial law and deployed 3,000 Soldiers that were ill-prepared for operating in the unique ethnic and linguistic landscape. Four months later, they raided the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani killing 32 suspected insurgents. Not long after, security forces killed seven demonstrators in Tak Bai. Seventy-eight others were crushed and suffocated during transportation to detention. The Prime Minister inflamed tensions when he controversially claimed their deaths were due partly to fasting during Ramadan. Insurgents responded in kind, beheading a Buddhist deputy village chief in Narathiwat and conducting other retaliatory attacks that encouraged the government to steadily increase troop numbers. Today, despite a twelve-year counterinsurgency campaign, 60,000 RTA troops and police now occupy the region of 11,000 square kilometers. Assassinations, ambushes, and improvised explosive device attacks occur regularly with no end in sight. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/the-secret-war-in-thailands-deep-south-8550581.html
Thai Soldiers protecting civilians during a  bombing in Pattani, 2011.

Prospects for Reconciliation

Despite displeasure towards government policies, relatively high voter-turnout rates suggest southerners still yearn to be part of the democratic process. Unsurprisingly, Greater Pattani presented the strongest opposition to the draft constitution in Thailand’s August 6, 2016 vote. In Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, most citizens opposed the new constitution due to concerns about Article 67, which allows the state to “promote and support education and propagation of principles to protect Buddhism”. For many Pattani-Muslims, this signaled a perpetuation of oppressive policies that began in the early 1900s. Reconciliation hinges on southern participation in the Thai National Assembly and reassurance or compromise regarding Article 67 of the Constitution.

A solution to this situation is not obvious and requires concerted effort to ensure that any accommodations for the south are in keeping with national interests. The Thai government must thoughtfully consider any concessions, such as granting autonomous status to  Greater Pattani, that might result in the North and East Regions petitioning for similar concessions. A more successful approach may be the decentralization of the national government in order to allow the provinces greater opportunity to represent themselves — a major policy shift for a government with a strong preference for centralization. Proof of democratic commitment, and consequently Pattani reconciliation, hangs in the balance until the 2017 election. Until the Thai government takes deliberate but delicate steps to disentangle the conflict, flashes of violence will continue to disrupt development and discourage tourism and external investment.


caleb-ling-01-02Captain Caleb Ling is a U.S. Army Infantry Officer with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and extensive multinational training experience at the Joint Readiness Training Center. He is currently attending Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.