Many people advocate putting former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on trial, in the hope of imprisoning her for misdeeds. They say that a president, who holds ultimate power, also has ultimate responsibility and needs to be punished the most if they abuse this power.
They have a point. But, I disagree with their course of action. Imprisoning an ex-president is not a good idea. Imprisoning Erap was a big mistake, and it’s too bad that we haven’t learned our lesson.
The biggest reason for not imprisoning ex-presidents is that it gives the impression of it being a political reckoning by the current president. The recent trial and jail sentence of Julia Timoshenko of Ukraine illustrates the point. She was convicted on a flimsy charge of signing an oil deal disadvantageous to the country, and now has to stay 7 years in jail for it. This verdict has damaged Ukraine’s relations both with the West and Russia.
Coup leaders in all kinds of third world countries routinely throw their predecessors in jail. While these civilian ex-presidents may have been quite guilty of corruption; they nevertheless had been singled out for prison, while other corrupt officials remain in office.
In the case of Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinuatra was deposed by a military coup. And then he was charged with corruption to effectively keep him from returning to the country. As a result, Thailand had troubles with Thaksin supporters (the ‘red shirts’) who alternatively held massive demonstrations and defeated military-backed parties during elections. Now, we have Thaksin’s sister (Yingluck Shinuatra) as the new Prime Minister.
The imprisonment of Joseph Estrada was also, in a way, a political reckoning. The ‘revolutionaries’ (led by Makati Business Club types) of EDSA 2 had to convict him of corruption in order to justify having overthrown him. While Estrada was certainly quite guilty of corruption; he had been singled out for conviction, and that was still a political reckoning. Estrada was eventually pardoned by Arroyo, but only after Arroyo had been elected for another presidential term. Whatever we may think of Erap Estrada, enough people felt that he was deposed and imprisoned unjustly, and that he deserved to continue his term as president. In protest, these people voted for Fernando Poe Jr (a close friend of Estrada) for president in 2004, and gave Estrada get the second highest number of votes in the 2010 elections.
Base of Support
Every former president has a base of electoral support. These people will react (sometimes, quite violently) to the imprisonment of ‘their’ president. In the case of Estrada, we saw this in the large mobilizations for ‘EDSA III’ and the electoral support during 2009 elections.
The peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next is not helped by the prospect of the new president imprisoning the old one. Not only may it lead them to stay in power longer (perhaps by extra-constitutional means), the president could also appoint people to key positions (e.g. Ombudsman Guttierez) to prevent this from happening. A president appoints a lot of officials during his/her term, and some have terms that last way into the term of his/her successor. These people could cause trouble for the new president if the previous one is imprisoned.
Dictators are an exception to the principle of not imprisoning presidents. By definition, dictators don’t hold fair elections anyway. They usually appoint close family members to head the security services (General Ver was a relative of Marcos). Dictators are notorious for imprisoning or killing a lot of their opponents.
When dictators are overthrown in a revolution, the change is so abrupt, so radical. All the appointees are thrown out together with the dictator. There is no constitutional continuity to preserve, since the dictator had so mangled the constitution that the new government has to draft a new one.
Corrupt presidents are one thing, while cruel dictators – with a lot of blood on their hands – are another. While I advocate NOT imprisoning corrupt ex-presidents; dictators need to be tried in court if possible, in order to fully expose their acts, and so steps could be taken to prevent them happening again. Then they should be thrown in jail, if found guilty.
What to do now?
But if we don’t imprison an ex-president, or his/her family, when they are corrupt, does this mean they have special treatment? Will they go unpunished? Isn’t this impunity?
Not really. In a case of a corrupt ex-president, the best option may still be to subject him/her to a fair trial. If found guilty, he/she should be sentenced to both a prison term and a fine (equivalent to the money stolen). And then, the prison term should be suspended.
This way, the ex-president’s loot is returned to the country, and he/she is barred from returning to office indefinitely. The electoral base will be bothered, even unhappy; but they will accept the court verdict. As for the corrupt relatives, they should be given the maximum prison sentence if found guilty. This is also, indirectly, a punishment for the ex-president.