Comment: Prosecuting a president is divisive and destabilizing. This is why countries still do
But the president and prime minister are not just anyone. They are chosen by the citizens of a country or their parties to lead. They are often popular, sometimes revered. So judicial proceedings against them are certainly seen as political and divisive.
DEstabilizes the Prosecutors
This is part of the reason why US President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, his predecessor, in 1974. Despite clear evidence of criminal conduct in the Watergate scandal, Ford worried fears the country “would not need to divert from facing[our]challenges if we as a people were to maintain a sharp divide over punishing the former president.
Public reaction at the time was divided along party lines. Today, some see Nixon’s pardon as necessary to heal the nation, while others believe it was a historic mistake, even taking into account his deteriorating health. Nixon – if for no other reason than that it encourages future impunity of the kind with which Trump is accused.
Our research on prosecuting world leaders shows that both broad immunity and excessive prosecution can undermine democracy. But such prosecutions pose different risks to older democracies like France and the US than to younger democracies like South Africa.
SMALL Mature Democracies
Strong democracies often have enough authority – and sufficiently independent judicial systems – to prosecute politicians for wrongdoing, including top leaders.
Sarkozy is the second modern French president to be found guilty of corruption, after Jacques Chirac in 2011 for kickbacks and conspiracy to bribe a judge. The country did not collapse after either sentence. However, some observers said Sarkozy’s three-year prison sentence was too harsh and politically motivated.
In mature democracies, holding leaders accountable can strengthen the rule of law. South Korea investigated and convicted five former presidents starting in the 1990s, a wave of political prosecutions that culminated in the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2018 and was soon followed by the conviction and dismissal. former prisoner Lee Myung-bak.
Do these prosecutions prevent future leaders from doing the wrong thing? South Korea’s two most recent presidents have so far shied away from legal trouble.