AMERICA’S IMPEACHMENT process is expected to culminate in a full vote in the House of Representatives within days. Yet the outcome already seems a foregone conclusion. The Democratic-controlled House looks certain to impeach President Donald Trump; and the Republican-dominated Senate, to which he will be sent for trial, looks equally certain to acquit him. It has been a bitter, partisan and probably futile effort. Although “impeachment” most often calls to mind embattled occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it is far from a mere American phenomenon. And impeachments in the rest of the world suggest it can be done better.
Since 1990, at least 132 different heads of state have faced some 272 impeachment proposals in 63 countries. Just last week the lower house of Chile’s parliament rejected an attempt to impeach the president, Sebastián Piñera, over allegations he did not do enough to safeguard human rights during weeks of protest in the country.
Inspired by an ancient German practice, impeachment was first used by England’s Parliament in 1376 to remove several of King Edward III’s ministers. Since then it has come to be understood as the process by which public officials are charged with misconduct, typically by legislatures. The constitutions of 94% of countries with presidents include mechanisms for removing them from office. Even some countries without presidents, such as Britain, allow for impeachment.
Impeachment has become more common, too, as democracy has spread. Leaders in nearly half of the countries that transitioned to presidential democracy from the mid-1970s onwards faced threats of impeachment from the legislature between 1974 and 2003. Although outright departure from office in the wake of such actions is relatively rare, it has still occurred roughly once every other year for the past three decades. Several notable instances of impeachment-related departures include Brazil’s Fernando Collor, who left office in 1992, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori—who attempted to resign by fax before he could be impeached—in 2000, the Philippines’ Joseph Estrada and Indonesia’s Abdurrahman Wahid in 2001 and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye in 2017.
Perhaps surprisingly, the frequent resort to impeachment has brightened several researchers’ views of it. Some even claim that countries should impeach their leaders more often. That is because impeachment assuages one of presidential democracy’s biggest flaws: rigidity. Fixed terms and strict divisions between executive and legislative branches bring a stability often missing in parliamentary systems, in which governments may be toppled by votes of no confidence and snap elections. But stability can harden into stasis. This makes presidential systems less responsive to public opinion and can give extraordinary, unconstitutional measures—such as military coups—greater appeal. Impeachment offers countries stuck in political crises a chance at a “hard reset”, according to Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago whose recent research highlights the global prevalence of the process.
Yet this positive reassessment does not stem from its American incarnation. Impeachment in America has a bad habit of descending into partisanship and parochialism, almost by design, according to Alexander Hamilton. The bar for impeachment in America is vague and debatable. Legislators must demonstrate the president has committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. As anyone who has tuned into American cable news in the past few weeks can attest, this leaves a lot of room for debate. Although framers such as Hamilton intended the basis of impeachment to be broad, as a defence against executives who too brazenly usurped power, presidents’ allies have promoted the more narrow understanding that evidence of a serious crime is required to justify an impeachment. A further complication is that both houses of the legislature are involved, which can lead to the country’s current predicament, in which the House and the Senate are likely to come to different conclusions. And impeachments in America can lead to “lame duck” administrations, left to limp on without much chance of executing policies, until the next round of elections, perhaps years away.
Other countries have come up with three simple yet effective ways to deal with these flaws. First, impeachment starts differently. Many countries establish even broader grounds for impeachment. In Tanzania, the president can be impeached if he has “conducted himself in a manner which lowers the esteem of the office of president”. Honduran presidents can be impeached for incompetence. In Ghana, disrepute, ridicule or contempt of office suffice.
Next, many countries, like America, require a second body to convict an impeached president before removal. The difference in much of the world is that this second body is often judicial. Seventeen countries give an upper house the final say on impeachment. But 61 grant courts or constitutional councils this power, including Albania, Hungary and South Korea. In Brazil and Colombia, an upper house has the final say if the president has been impeached for bad conduct or crimes in the exercise of his or her functions, but the supreme court does if common crimes have been committed. America’s Supreme Court has largely sidestepped involvement in impeachment. During Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, America’s chief justice at the time, William Rehnquist, cast his role as largely ceremonial. John Roberts, the current chief, is expected to do the same.
Finally, the outcomes of impeachments differ from America in many other countries. Whereas the vice-president assumes power after an impeached American president is removed from office, in a majority of other states, a president’s removal triggers new elections. In March 2017, South Korea’s constitutional court upheld a presidential impeachment motion against Ms Park, a right-leaning president, after revelations that she had divulged state secrets to a friend, let her meddle in policy and colluded with her to extort bribes from big companies. By May, Moon Jae-in had easily won the elections required within 60 days of a president’s removal. He became the country’s first left-of-centre president in almost a decade, promising to root out corruption.
Post-impeachment elections such as South Korea’s allow for more immediate political change. That may satisfy the public to a greater extent than the continuity brought by a vice-presidential takeover. Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil in 2016 offers a striking contrast to South Korea’s experience. Instead of triggering new elections, Brazil’s constitution allowed for Ms Rousseff’s vice-president, Michel Temer, to assume power. Although a member of the opposition party, Mr Temer, like Ms Rousseff, found himself enmeshed in Lava Jato (Car Wash), a sprawling anti-corruption investigation that dominated news about the country’s political class for years. This may have caused frustration with the establishment to mount, creating space for the eventual election of Jair Bolsonaro, an avowedly anti-establishment populist.
The effect of these features is in many ways to give impeachment powers that are akin to the more flexible system of no-confidence votes, used in parliamentary systems. Given that impeachment is enshrined in America’s constitution, the chances of changing the system are negligible. But as the process unfolds over the coming weeks, it may be worth remembering that it could be different. In many places, it is.