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How Other Countries Handle Impeachments, And What The U.S. Can Learn From Them


While impeachment of an American president is rare, these stories are pretty common in other parts of the world. In the last three decades, a world leader has left office under a cloud of impeachment about once every other year. Charlie Wells of The Economist magazine has been digging into how impeachment works in other countries and joins us now.


CHARLIE WELLS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your article argues that presidential impeachments are done better abroad. What do you mean by done better?

WELLS: Well, there are a lot of other presidential democracies around the world, and they've come up with a number of ways to sort of take some of the partisan air out of the impeachment tire. The grounds for impeachment are sort of a bit broader. So, you know, in a country like Tanzania, behavior that sort of lowers the conduct of the office can be grounds. In Honduras, a president who's deemed incompetent can sort of meet that bar. And in a place like Ghana, bringing disrepute to the office can sort of serve that purpose.

SHAPIRO: Except is lowering the standard for impeachment, I mean, so low - is, like, conducting himself in a manner which lowers the esteem of the office of the president in the case of Tanzania just a recipe for every leader to be impeached? That seems like a really low bar.

WELLS: Yeah. I think it's quite a low bar. And I think that there are sort of other mechanisms within a number of these constitutions that sort of prevent impeachments, you know, from happening every other day. And I think one of those is snap elections are required to be called after a president has been removed from office.

And that was the case in South Korea, where in 2017, after Park Geun-hye was removed from office, an election was called within 60 days of her removal. And a left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in, was ultimately brought in. You could ultimately conclude there that that allowed for sort of a reset after this political crisis.

SHAPIRO: You don't end up with a lame duck the way you might in the U.S. or other countries.

WELLS: Fewer lame ducks.

SHAPIRO: You also say that some countries have a much bigger role for judges in an impeachment. Tell us about that.

WELLS: That's exactly right. So in the United States, the chief justice oversees the trial in the Senate. But the precedent that's really been set there has been sort of the symbolic role, whereas in a number of other countries, the second body that approves and ultimately removes the president from office is usually judicial. And that can actually be quite helpful because it makes the process at least seem and hopefully operate in a way that's a lot more impartial.

SHAPIRO: You say that a lot of the researchers who study impeachment have reached the conclusion that countries would actually be better off if they impeached their presidents more often. Why would they conclude that?

WELLS: There's this emerging school of research that is seeing that impeachment is actually quite a sort of normal part of presidential democracy around the world, and that in countries where the rules are clear, where the process is less partisan and where it actually happens, that can actually be more satisfying for the electorate and potentially bring about more democratic stability.

SHAPIRO: You're saying it's better than a coup.

WELLS: It's a lot better than a coup. If you have a process that allows the legislature to sort of take out an executive if you're in a period of political crisis, that could make other options, including coups, less appealing.

SHAPIRO: Given the rules of impeachment in the U.S. are established in the Constitution, they seem unlikely to change. So do you think that there are helpful lessons the U.S. can take from these other cases?

WELLS: I think there really are some helpful lessons that we can take. And I think one of the points is just getting the process down. So in so many other countries, the process of impeachment is stipulated to a greater degree. It's sort of explained more.

SHAPIRO: You don't have to have the kind of negotiations we're seeing right now between Senator Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell.

WELLS: That's exactly right. You can focus more on the facts and less about the process. And I think anytime that that can happen, democracy is better served.

SHAPIRO: That's Charlie Wells of The Economist magazine.

Thanks for talking with us.

WELLS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.