Le­gal chal­lenges for lead­ers are ev­i­dence that a sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers is work­ing

The National - News - - OPINION - SHOLTO BYRNES

The world ap­pears so off its reg­u­lar axis that it is easy to be­lieve many of our most hal­lowed norms are ei­ther per­ish­ing or have al­ready been done away with. Right-wing pop­ulists are get­ting away with say­ing the pre­vi­ously un­speak­able about eth­nic groups, whom they blame for so­ci­eties’ woes. Lu­di­crous con­spir­acy the­o­ries have ad­vanced from the mar­gins to the main­stream. The ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity of states is no longer guar­an­teed by a unan­i­mous in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus. When schol­ars ask if democ­racy and the rule of law are dy­ing, it fre­quently seems as though they have al­ready de­cided the an­swer is “yes”.

So it is good to be re­minded that there are coun­tries where nor­mal rules not only con­tinue to ex­ist but are be­ing ex­er­cised to pro­tect the sys­tem of checks and balances essen­tial to good gov­er­nance.

Im­peach­ment hear­ings are un­der way in the US for only the third time in the coun­try’s his­tory. So ex­tra­or­di­nary has Don­ald Trump’s presidency been that the first at­tempts to start this process were in 2017 – only a few months after he took up res­i­dence in the While House. It was ob­vi­ous this would go nowhere when the Repub­li­can Party, which Mr Trump leads, con­trolled the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, where the im­peach­ment process must be­gin.

After long ag­o­nis­ing over whether us­ing this ul­ti­mate cen­sure would ac­tu­ally re­bound and help the pres­i­dent in his re-election bid next year, the as­cen­dant Demo­cratic Party – which now has a ma­jor­ity in the House – is push­ing ahead.

It seems likely that the House will vote to im­peach the pres­i­dent but the Se­nate, still in the Repub­li­cans’ hands, will not vote to con­vict him. Re­gard­less, the tes­ti­mony we have al­ready heard from cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials – in­clud­ing those who are sup­posed to be on Mr Trump’s side – has been dev­as­tat­ing. The US

Con­sti­tu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Mr Trump’s edict ear­lier this year, means: “I can do what­ever I want as pres­i­dent”. How­ever, the im­peach­ment process has be­come a very pub­lic and hu­mil­i­at­ing re­join­der to Mr Trump that this is not the case, that he might have bro­ken nu­mer­ous rules and laws, no mat­ter how much Wil­liam Barr, his at­tor­ney gen­eral, as­sures him that his pres­i­den­tial pow­ers are vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited.

In Is­rael, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu has just be­come the first sit­ting prime min­is­ter to be in­dicted on crim­i­nal charges, in­clud­ing bribery, fraud and breach of trust. It may be that he can­not legally be forced to stand down un­til and un­less he is con­victed. Nev­er­the­less, Mr Ne­tanyahu’s claims that the in­ves­ti­ga­tions into him con­sti­tuted an “at­tempted coup” are un­con­vinc­ing, to say the least.

The charges have been laid by Avichai Man­del­blit, the at­tor­ney gen­eral whom Mr Ne­tanyahu ap­pointed and who had pre­vi­ously served as his cab­i­net sec­re­tary. Fur­ther, Mr Man­del­blit is close to his prime min­is­ter but he also has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing fiercely im­par­tial.

It is hard to see how long Mr Ne­tanyahu can cling to of­fice – es­pe­cially as when his pre­de­ces­sor Ehud Olmert was him­self in­ves­ti­gated in 2008, Mr Ne­tanyahu said that un­der the cir­cum­stances Mr Olmert had no “moral or pub­lic man­date to make cru­cial de­ci­sions” and called for him to go.

Mean­while in Ro­ma­nia in May, the leader of the then rul­ing So­cial Democrats, Liviu Drag­nea, was sent to jail for abuse of power.

His pro­tege Vior­ica Dan­cila was still prime min­is­ter at the time. But after mas­sive demon­stra­tions and a clear re­jec­tion by the vot­ing pub­lic in the Euro­pean par­lia­men­tary elec­tions – the So­cial Democrats won only 23 per cent – her gov­ern­ment could stand in jus­tice’s way no more. Mr Drag­nea was picked up by the po­lice from his home the very next day.

In Bri­tain, too, some have wor­ried that the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment is push­ing the bounds of its un­writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion in terms of the pow­ers it can as­sert. To sug­gest that Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son is in the same com­pany as the men men­tioned above would be ab­surd. But the fact that the courts stymied his at­tempt to shorten par­lia­ment’s work­ing days in Septem­ber and have just al­lowed another le­gal chal­lenge to his Brexit with­drawal agree­ment shows that checks and balances in Bri­tain are still work­ing – even if some strongly dis­pute the judges’ rul­ings.

What is sig­nif­i­cant about all th­ese cases is that they con­cern in­cum­bent lead­ers. It is far eas­ier to pros­e­cute prime min­is­ters and pres­i­dents after they have left or lost of­fice, but do­ing so runs the risk of ap­pear­ing to be political per­se­cu­tion. For in­stance, there are many who ques­tion the jail­ing of Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva, the for­mer Brazil­ian pres­i­dent, on money-laun­der­ing and cor­rup­tion charges last year. That, tweeted US pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie San­ders this month, was “some­thing that should never have hap­pened in the first place”.

How­ever, when lead­ers in of­fice – in the ex­ec­u­tive – re­ceive ma­jor push­back in a just ap­pli­ca­tion of the rules from the other branches of gov­ern­ment – the ju­di­ciary and leg­is­la­ture – it shows that the doc­trine of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers is work­ing.

The sig­nal is sent that gov­ern­ments can and will be held ac­count­able. No one is above the law. That those in power can be ac­cused of such crimes might be ap­palling; that they must an­swer the charges, how­ever, should be re­as­sur­ing.

In times of baf­fling change and un­cer­tainty, it is good to hold onto th­ese ex­am­ples. We might feel buf­feted by storms but some tim­bers are hold­ing strong. The fact that they are should give us hope that they, and the foun­da­tions of good gov­er­nance in many other coun­tries, will still be stand­ing when the tem­pest abates.

Such cases send the strong­est pos­si­ble sig­nal that gov­ern­ments can and will be held ac­count­able

Sholto Byrnes is a com­men­ta­tor and con­sul­tant in Kuala Lumpur and a cor­re­spond­ing fel­low of the Eras­mus Fo­rum

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.