Peter Popham: Holding leaders to account is a democratic duty

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The fall of the ultimate leader of a state – his execution, conviction or simply humiliation – is a dangerous thrill. The citizens who cheered the decapitations of Charles I and Louis XVI knew all about it, the surging, anarchic sense of power and vindication. The Egyptians who this year saw a supine, inert Mubarak wheeled into court, the Libyans who saw the Brother Leader butchered in the street like a rabid dog, knew that mood of wild elation.

But in the democracies it's an emotion to be tasted sparingly, with trepidation and even awe. That man up there, halfway to being a god – however much we mock him, it was we who put him there; we invested our hopes for the future in him and his promises, and if, like Jacques Chirac, he was for years head of state as well as head of the government, we sank our collective identity in that rubber face and pompous presence. When we tear him down we strike at the collective self he represented. The divisions of any society which a plausible leader serves to mask risk being ripped open again in the fierce joy of bringing him down to earth.

But it has to be done; the risk must be taken. Helmut Kohl, like Chirac, had to face his judges over illegal party funding. Silvio Berlusconi could not escape being held to account for his seedy business practices. Even Nicolas Sarkozy's day may not be far off... In the end, a rigorous and robust judiciary, willing to face such challenges, is the only thing that keeps us from going the way of Libya.

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