How the World Keeps Democratic Power in Check

Priyal Thakkar. Priyal is a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. She is interested in international human rights law and strategic litigation. She completed a summer internship with the Judicial System Monitoring Program in 2021.

This summer, I had the privilege of interning with the Judicial System Monitoring Program on a report that engaged in comparative analyses of impeachment mechanisms in civil and common law countries. While impeachment can be dated back to ancient Germany, the first known occurrence was in 1376 in England with the removal of several ministers to King Edward III.[1] Since 1990, at least 132 different heads of state have faced 272 impeachment proposals in 63 countries.

Charlie Wells argues that presidential impeachments are “done better” abroad.[2]  Italy has arguably one of the most innovative impeachment mechanisms.[3] The president is impeached for high treason, and once voted on by a majority in parliament, the president is tried by a jury of the Constitutional Court and 16 ordinary citizens.[4]

Our report surveyed the common basis for impeachment in 114 countries and found that the most common basis for impeachment of a head of state is criminal misconduct. Other bases include treason, breach of duty, violating the constitution, and poor performance, among others. The report then examines the procedures tied to the impeachment process and how they vary internationally. It further moves on to analyze the trial procedure and weighs the pros and cons of judicial and legislative impeachments. Lastly, the report notes the consequences of impeachment. In most countries, removal from office triggers fresh elections, rather than a transition to the vice president.

In particular, I was most intrigued by the impeachment of Jacob Zuma in South Africa. Zuma served as the president of South Africa from 2009 to 2018. His Presidency was marred by government debt, accusations of corruption, and a rape accusation and trial.[5] The Constitutional Court (highest court of the land), in 2016, found that Zuma had violated the Constitution of South Africa when he refused to pay back public money spent on upgrades to his private residence.[6] The political party Zuma was affiliated with asked him to resign but he refused. The party then held a vote of no confidence against Zuma, but he survived the vote and was not impeached.[7] The opposition parties decided to take the matter to the Court.[8] They collectively argued in the Constitutional Court that the parliament had acted unconstitutionally.[9] The Court ruled that the parliament had failed to hold Zuma accountable and had not properly investigated his conduct.[10] The Court then ordered the legislature to create rules to regulate a president’s impeachment.[11]

As Zuma’s case illustrates, impeachment mechanisms need some form of judicial oversight not just for facial legitimacy, but to ensure the process has some recourse in case of a supermajority in the legislature that could potentially impede a truly democratic exchange. However, arguments have also been made that judicial involvement may not lend procedural legitimacy to the impeachment process but instead politicize it even further.

While it may be impossible to design an impeachment mechanism that can withstand all attempts of misuse, it is becoming increasingly clear that a process of removal best suited to a country’s specific needs is an essential, yet oft overlooked, marker of its democratic strength.

Working on this report helped me appreciate and recognize how democracy (or lack thereof) manifests globally and the competing considerations one needs to consider before decrying policies as functional or inoperative. I would like to take this opportunity to thank JSMP and the IRLS program for this wonderful opportunity and the insights I shall carry forward because of it.

[1] Dave Lawler, What Impeaching Leaders Looks Like Around the World, AXIOS (Dec 2019),

[2] Ari Shapiro, How Other Countries Handle Impeachments, and What The U.S. Can Learn From Them, NPR (Dec 2019),

[3] Ryan Heath, From Impeachment to Death Sentences: How Other Countries Punish Wayward Leaders, Politico (Dec. 2019),

[4] Id.

[5] Stan Chu Ilo, South African President Jacob Zuma is an Embarrassment to Memory of Mandela, Chicago Tribune (April 2016),

[6] Ruth Maclean, Zuma Impeachment Calls Grow After Court Rules on Home Upgrade Scandal, Guardian (Dec 2017),

[7] Azad Essa, Jacob Zuma Resigns as South Africa’s President, AlJazeera (Feb 2018),

[8] Norimitsu Onishi, South African Court Raises Pressure for Zuma to Go, NYTimes (Dec 2017),

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

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