In Jakarta, Ahok and Anies are both running for gubernatorial election.

One Anies supporter uses one of Ahok speeches to accuse him of blasphemy.

Article: Ahok denies saying the Quran tricks people against voting for him, says his words were edited out of context

Ahok, who had a 70% approval rating, was then sent to jail.

It makes me wonder, why isn't this happening in stable democracies like the US?

When Donald Trump and Hillary were running for election, rather than trying to campaign, why not just try to get the other imprisoned over unclear or "rubbery" laws?

Does the US have special rules to postpone prosecution until the election is over? (Indonesians have one but chose to waive it for the Ahok case due to too much demonstration).

What would happen in the US?

Being a good candidate is tough (and not lucrative). It's much easier to simply jail your competitor than trying to rule well.

I know it's done in many parts of the world.

How do democracies like the US handle these issues?

  • 50
    You're making the assumption that governor Ahok was sent to jail by his political opponents and not because he broke the law and was found guilty in court. I'm not saying your assumption is wrong, but you haven't provided any supporting evidence. The premise of your question may be false. How do you know he was thrown in jail by political opponents? theguardian.com/world/2017/may/09/… Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 18:41
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    The Saturday Night Massacre is one example of why it is hard for a US president to obstruct justice.
    – C. E.
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 23:02
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    @Michael_B the fact of being found guilty in court doors not preclude political opponents being behind the prosecution.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 3:09
  • 5
    Tl,dr; Two things, separation of powers and the rule of law. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 5:14
  • 4
    Because nobody has yet announced they're running against Donald Trump, who was not yet President when asserting that his desired plan to deal with "crooked Hillary" was to "lock her up."
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 15:16

9 Answers 9


The simplest answer is that a US President can't just arbitrarily throw anyone in jail. (At least overtly: we're not talking about covert ops here.) About the most a President could do would be to direct the Department of Justice to have the FBI (or some independent commission, like the current Mueller one) do an investigation. Then if credible evidence was found, it would need to be presented to a grand jury, and indictments issued. Moreover, even if the opposing candidate was arrested, s/he would be able to obtain bail, and could continue campaigning, probably with increased popular support. See the 4th & 8th Amendments to the US Constitution.

Aside from the legal obstacles, public opinion would make it pointless for a President to do anything like this openly. Unless s/he was extremely popular (and in that case, why bother?), such an action would almost certainly sway enough public opinion to lose the election, and would probably lead to impeachment. As mentioned in another answer, Richard Nixon's acts of just secretly investigating his opponent led to him resigning the office rather than face impeachment. Do a search on "Watergate".

  • 12
    "creditable evidence" should be "credible". "Richard Nixon's acts of just secretly investigating his opponent" technically, it was covering up other people investigating his opponents that led to his resigning. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 20:23
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    Also, due process takes time. A plausible strategy to get a political opponent thrown in jail, even with an abundance of incriminating evidence, could take years. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 20:33
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    To cite just one recent example, a nanny in my hometown killed two children under her care in 2012. She has confessed. The trial started today. nypost.com/2018/03/01/… Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 20:40
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    @DavidRicherby, I haven't studied the case carefully. I think she's pleading not guilty by reason of mental illness. But whatever the case, I cited this example solely as an illustration of time span. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 21:54
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    @jamesqf while creditable is indeed a word, it is not generally used in US law to describe evidence, while "credible evidence" is a well established concept.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 3:12

Are you asking why Trump didn't try to get Clinton brought up on charges of criminal misbehavior? If so, you can google the words "Lock Her Up" and see that you might have some mistakes about the United States Election process. Or read up on the reactions to the ongoing Russian-Collusion accusations against Trump.

In fact, it appears that during the bulk of the campaign season in the US, both front runners were under separate investigations by the FBI for criminal accusations, with a slew of just wacky out-there conspiracies alleging even worse.

Blaspheme laws in the United States do not exist and are in fact banned from existence by the First Amendment, which grants one of the most Liberal Free Speech laws in the entire world... there are hate groups that advocate for lawful genocide of a minority population that are legal under the Supreme Court Ruling (actually instigating unlawful genocide is not legal... and doing so gets you into a lot of trouble.). Candidates are allowed to say whatever they want about any religious figure they want and will not face legal repercussion (Trump said a lot of things about Muslims during his campaign that were not favorable and Clinton was found to hold Catholics in less than high regards as well).

In both cases, neither candidate was an incumbent candidate (though Clinton worked for then Incumbent Barack Obama during his first term and had several friends inside the White House). President Truman was the last U.S. President who was able to run for a third term but was so unpopular by the end of his second, he decided not to run. Since then, all Presidents are limited by two terms for life and Franklin Roosevelt was the only President to win more than two terms (he died in office during his Fourth). As such, President Obama was ineligible from running in 2016 as it was his second term.

As a rule, the FBI will not comment on investigations it is currently working on and will not make arrests or charges of political officials during the campaign BUT that is a tradition and not a rule (Comey definitely broke with Tradition when he reopened the case against Clinton and we don't know how it affected her. Most states have "Early Voting" which allows the voter to cast their vote prior to the Election Day, and I believe all polls were opened at the time of the announcement, and it was generally a larger than average Early Voting turn out across the board, so a lot of votes had been cast.).

Generally, if a sitting President is running for his second term and uses government agencies against his opponent it's not viewed by the American Public as desirable. The last known time this happened was with Richard Nixon and Watergate. He ended up winning the election legitimately (his opponent was a terrible candidate that lost all but one state and Washington D.C., largely through no fault of Nixons), so he was one of the most popular presidents ever elected... BUT by the time he resigned, he was hated for using government agencies against his opponent and is usually considered one of the worst Presidents ever (if not outright the outright worst).

Basically, even if the President wants to try and use an agency against an opponent, the American People will not stand for it.

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    Nearly all of them. For example, that the United States doesn't have blaspheme laws, but does have "the most liberal free speech laws in the entire world". Most of the other claims are not incredible by any means, but backing-up an answer with your own experience or external sources is an important part of an answer. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 18:44
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    I would suggest this question is mostly interesting to people less familiar with the US, so the traditions, rules and role of the FBI and the history of Nixon's actions and backlash would be were I would focus. @indigochild Are there people disputing either of those claims? I thought after being rich and stupid that was what we were most famous for.
    – user9389
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 18:52
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    @notstoreboughtdirt Being disputed is not a prerequisite here. In general, answers should be backed up. We have a meta post on this. Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 19:01
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    Note that, if you're challenged to provide references and your response is "But it's so easy to give references!" then the immediate reply is "So do that, then." Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 22:03
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    Nobody's saying you're wrong, @hszmv. We're saying you should improve your answer by including the proof that you're right therein. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 2:13

Because we have a tradition of worrying about arbitrary arrest and political persecution and fighting those abuses of power is taught as an important reason our country exists.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government

declaration of independence

Pointing out how bad it is that other countries do this is popular in the news. 1 2

Our current system seems to work well enough for most purposes. gerrymandering


Significant American presidential candidates have been jailed for political "crimes" at least twice during the past 100 years:

  • Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned during the 1920 presidential campaign.
  • Lyndon LaRouche was on trial (facing a long prison sentence) during the 1988 presidential campaign; he was in federal prison during the 1992 campaign. The charges were about how he financed his campaigns.
  • 2
    Neither one was a "significant" candidate, however. Debs never got more than 6% of the vote, LaRouche much less.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 19:44
  • 1
    @jamesqf -- 3 - 6 percent of the general election vote is significant, but does not reach the "major" party level. The 2000 presidential election was determined by votes that went to a candidate with that level of support, instead of to "major" candidates.
    – Jasper
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 6:01
  • @jamesqf -- The significance of LaRouche's candidacy needs to be measured by how close he came to being a major contender in his early runs in the Democratic party primaries, not by his overall vote totals. He had a widespread network of grassroots organizers, and quite a few distinctive ideas.
    – Jasper
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 6:09
  • 3
    Since when were mail fraud, credit card fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and tax evasion "political crimes?" Debs case, on the other hand, was indeed largely political in nature. Fortunately, the Sedition Act was repealed shortly thereafter, so that 'crime' couldn't be prosecuted today (and, had it not been repealed so quickly, it likely would have been tossed by courts as a First Amendment violation long before now.)
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 9:05
  • Comparing the respective achievements of the victimized Debs' to his scheming competition is a little like comparing the net worths of a swindler to the swindled. 3% for a candidate in jail seems phenomenal.
    – agc
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 5:43

TL;DR: "presidents" of western style countries are not elected dictators - even if they have, to varying degrees, influence on what the law is, they are not immediately above the law - unless the law says they are under specific conditions.

Also, while somebody having the political clout to run for election will have some formal and informal power, they will also be very much in the focus of media attention in the pre-election phase. News on disagreeable behaviour by a candidate will be HIGHLY interesting to voters, and will sell newspapers very well - so there is a strong economic motivation to journalists to uncover such behaviour.

While an image based on ruthless strength and forcefully removing any opposition CAN ring positive to part of the voters, there have been very bad experiences in the western world with such candidates, and in many (not all) countries there will be enough harsh criticism to spoil that candidate's chances - for example, suggest tolerating such behaviour in Germany, and there will be a lot of voices saying "This is what got Hitler his way. Never again.".

  • 1
    I'm sure you can expand on the differences. And possibly what mechanisms exist to see that it stays that way.
    – user9389
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 22:32
  • Can you back up this answer? It doesn't sound unreasonable, but it would be improved by citing references which show it to be true. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 0:03
  • "so there is a strong economic motivation to journalists to uncover such behaviour." Sounds reasonable and even desirable on the surface. However, this turns out not to be true in real life.
    – Dunk
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 21:02
  • Because the Fourth Estate +1 "Do a search on 'Watergate'." - Indeed.
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 18:17
  • The current US president has been much criticized in public and it seems there are still plenty of vocal opponents at large ... so I guess they still keep it on, even on sundays. Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 8:30

There are not blanket "special rules" to postpone prosecution during an election, but the federal Department of Justice does have special guidelines for election periods, some of which are summarized in this 2012 memo from the Attorney General on "election year sensitivities." The memo cites the importance of "safeguarding the Department's reputation for fairness, neutrality, and nonpartisianship."

Simply put, politics must play no role in the decisions of federal investigators or prosecutors regarding any investigations or criminal charges. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party. Such a purpose is inconsistent with the Department's mission and with the Principles for Federal Prosecution.

And by law, a federal government employee may not:

use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election

However, these policies are generally closer to norms than firm rules. They rely in large part on the individuals who make up governmental institutions trying to do the right thing because they care about perpetuating the values those institutions stand on. If they are violated, Congress can use exercise its oversight authority to investigate, but that too depends on the willingness of Congress to do so, which itself turns on partisan considerations and public opinion. The Justice Department is supposed to maintain a degree of independence from the President so that it is not used for political purposes, but this largely remains a matter of norms and practices rather than law, and the response to violations is largely a political matter.


While the other answers touch on procedural reasons this wouldn't work, I think the biggest reason is the culture of liberal democracy that Western populations have embraced. Every U.S. federal employee takes an oath of office in which they pledge to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. The constitution, not the president. Having been a federal employee myself I can say that most view this as a solemn and serious obligation.

Were a president to attempt such a thing he would encounter complete resistance from almost every layer of the bureaucracy, including the people he personally appointed to the highest levels.


The US also has something that some governments do not have: an independent judiciary, who will pass judgment on any convictions or even just arrests. If the judiciary does not find that an arrest is legal, or that laws used to justify an arrest do not conform to the US constitution, then the arrest is revoked, and a sitting president can do nothing about it.

This judiciary is appointed by the executive branch (president) and approved by the legislative branch (congress), so there is the potential for political bias. However, judges generally can't be removed once installed, their pronouncements will be reviewed by other judges (all the way up to the supreme court), and in the US, the two political parties tend to swap off who is control of the presidency and congress, so it all balances out somehow.

For example, if in 2016, president Obama had ordered Trump arrested, there would have been writs filed with courts almost immediately demanding the reason for the arrest... and if that arrest couldn't be justified by law, or the law cited was found to be unconstitutional, that arrest would have been nullified by a judge.

Does Indonesia have an independent judiciary? Based on what you relate, I would assume not... such 'rubbery' laws would never pass a court test in the US. We're hardly perfect, but every so often, we get something right, and the three branches of the government: executive, judiciary, and legislative, all serving as checks and balances on each other, is one thing that we definitely got right.

  • "However, judges generally can't be removed once installed" That's not really true. Congress can impeach federal judges. It's just very rare for them to do so. States have their own differing laws for removing judges. In some states (including mine) many judicial positions are elected or at least must be confirmed by popular vote.
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 9:12
  • True, but a judge has to get really out of hand to invoke impeachment. Generally speaking, judges can't be impeached just because the party in power doesn't like them, so they tend to remain somewhat free of political pressure.
    – tj1000
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 22:46

The simple answer is that the American public would not stand for such behaviour. The American President is not supposed to have that much power, and even the ones who have managed to acquire that level of power had to be circumspect in its use and either hide their abuses, or convince the public that the recipients were horrible people who definitely deserved it.

If a sitting president were to do something as blatant as simply throwing the opposition in jail on obviously false charges he would likely be impeached and removed from office (assuming he did not resign to avoid it as Nixon did).

And if, somehow, he had acquired enough power and blackmail material to avoid impeachment he would then likely have to deal with an armed and angry mob showing up on the Whitehouse lawn intent on giving a demonstration of the quaint American tradition of "tarring and feathering".

http://politics.stackexchange.com/questions/28162/ Has some examples of violent protest at the local level when the government pushed its boundaries too far. I would expect unresolved national-level abuses would likely provoke similar responses.

  • 1
    A link to politics.stackexchange.com/questions/28162/… seems appropriate for your last paragraph. It doesn't really seem to support your conclusion though.
    – user9389
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 19:47
  • @notstoreboughtdirt Indeed. Although I would point out that there's not a lot of refutation of my conclusion either. There are numerous accounts in American history of outraged citizenry violently ousting corrupt local government officials (some of which are mentioned in that question), the fact that it hasn't happened at the Federal level could simply mean that the Federal government has never sufficiently angered a critical mass of citizens and then denied them redress of their grievances. We have been close a few times though: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonus_Army
    – Perkins
    Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 20:25
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    Can this answer be backed up? What evidence is there that Americans would not stand for this? Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 3:34
  • @indigochild The question linked by notstoreboughtdirt has several examples of various American groups at the state level resorting to violent protest over far less, some even successfully, and a couple even in the 21st century, and it is by no means a complete list. While it's impossible to predict such a thing with certainty as there are few entirely relevant past examples I doubt that a blatant framing and imprisonment of a popular presidential candidate would not backfire on the perpetrator at some level. Probably impeachment, but if not then I have no doubt there would be violence.
    – Perkins
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 4:21
  • @Perkins You should incorporate that into your answer. Comments are only temporary, they will eventually be deleted. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 15:27

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