World leaders have this week shown their vulnerable side
Poor King Charles. He was admitted to the London Clinic for a routine procedure to treat a benign prostate condition and came out with a cancer diagnosis. The news that cancer was spotted elsewhere during the procedure must have come as a shock to Charles as it did to the rest of the country. Life can be such a bitch sometimes.
Despite all the stresses and tensions in British society, the country behaves like one big family on such occasions. There is heartfelt sympathy for the king and praise for sharing his prostate problem and subsequent cancer diagnosis. He chose to be transparent about his conditions in the hope it would encourage men to get tested for prostate – it is a common condition as they get older and easier to treat if caught early.
His mother Queen Elizabeth II had a long life, and an eventful reign and was only physically infirm during her last six months, although her mental acuity never left her. But the longevity of her reign had consequences, one of which was that her son and heir was almost 74 when she died in 2022 and he became king. Elizabeth could have abdicated in her 80s, which would have enabled Charles to ascend to the throne in his late 50s, but she chose not to do so. Perhaps she wanted to wait until the country learned to love Charles after his messy divorce from Diana Princess of Wales and her tragic death in 1997, or she may have just enjoyed being queen.
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, for whom Elizabeth was a role model, chose not to follow her example and shocked Denmark when she announced that she would abdicate in favour of her 52-year old son Frederik in her New Year’s Eve address last year. She abdicated on January 14 aged 83 and he was crowned King Frederik X the next day, without the pomp of a British-style coronation.
If King Charles has to take time off as head of state there are four pathways that could be followed depending on his medical condition. He can choose to function part time as he is doing at present, or delegate some of his functions to counsellors of state, or abdicate if he wants to give up the throne for good. And if he becomes totally unable to function as sovereign, a regency would be declared whereby the sovereign’s functions are performed in his name and on his behalf by a regent – normally the next in line to the throne.
The sovereign’s total incapacity is determined by any three or more of his spouse, the speaker of the lower legislative chamber and the three top judicial officers in the land. The decision has to be in writing and supported by medical evidence. If the sovereign recovers and is able to perform his functions, the same process has to be gone through in reverse.
By sheer coincidence, the infirmities of US President Joe Biden were on display last week too. Biden was Vice President (VP) under President Barack Obama and kept classified documents after he left office in 2016. As he is the incumbent president he was questioned by special counsel as a suspect because retaining classified documents can be a criminal offence. However, counsel decided that Biden’s prosecution was not likely to succeed because he would come across as a loveable old guy who was a bit gaga. It was a bizarre conclusion about a sitting president, though to be fair what counsel actually said was that Biden was an old man with a poor memory.
It is extraordinary that at a time of heightened worldwide tension the two candidates for US president are unfit to hold the office of the most powerful man on the planet – Biden is gaga and Donald Trump a potential felon.
Under the US Constitution a candidate for US president must be a citizen by birth, resident there for 14 years and aged at least 35. There is no upper age limit and he or she does not have to be of sound mind and of good character. Surprisingly, it is only after a person is elected president that he can be replaced by the VP if he is unable to discharge his or her functions, or is removed by impeachment and conviction for high crimes and misdemeanours.
If Biden’s mental faculties deteriorate sharply and the VP and a majority of the principal officers of state are prepared to invoke amendment 25 and declare in writing to the leaders of Congress that the president is unable to discharge his powers, he could be replaced by the VP who would become acting president, though not necessarily the Democratic Party’s candidate.
That scenario, however, is not likely to happen as the Democratic Party would lean on Biden to withdraw if his gaffes get really bad – his latest was to refer to President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt as president of Mexico. Trump has senior moments too – he referred to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban as president of Turkey; but he is more likely to get into difficulties if he is convicted of some of the many criminal offences he is facing.
By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin was on great form in his interview with Tucker Carlson, the pro-Russia former anchor of Fox News. His interview was full of historical allusions and rational assurances that Russia has no intention of invading Nato countries.
The difference between America and Russia this time round is that in America people have a bad choice for president between the pro Putin candidate,Trump, and the anti-Putin candidate, Biden, whereas in Russia they have no choice but to vote for Putin.
Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge