Impeachment seems to be presidential democracy's equivalent of parliamentary democracies' votes of no confidence. Why such a large disparity in numbers of them then?

  • 18
    I would disagree about the equivalence. "No confidence" seems to be "you're doing a lousy job, let's see if we want to go in a different direction." Impeachment is "you've abused power to the point where we are going to indict you of crimes against the people." Quite different. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 16:03

8 Answers 8


One is an expected form of power transfer, the other is not.

In a parliamentary democracy, each representative has a mandate from their constituents, and only in aggregate can they form a government. If that government can't command a majority in the parliament, they basically can't govern, but someone else might be able to. Depending on the exact parliamentary model, this might then involve calling a general election "out of season".

Imagine you have 3 parties with the following seat breakdowns

  • Red 35%
  • Blue 45%
  • Yellow 20%

At the start of the parliament, Blue and Yellow agree to work together, and form a government (the "Green Coalition"). They total 65% of the seats, so can easily pass their legislation. At some later point, they have a falling out, and Yellow ask Red to table a no confidence vote, which wins 55%, and then form a new government (the "Orange Coalition").

At no point have the choices of the voters not been honoured.

A president is chosen by all the people together. It's much harder to have a falling out with yourself over policy.

An impeachment is by design not honouring the choice of the voters, but putting some other criteria above it. The people who make that decision also answer to the voters, it's in their interest to only try it when they think the public will agree it was warranted.

  • 5
    This appears to be rather close to the German model of constructive votes of no-confidence. In this model, the motion must be supported by a new proto-government, so the transfer is instant. In other democracies, a vote of no confidence triggers a new election instead. That makes the option attractive to parties which expect to win more seats in that election.
    – MSalters
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 11:44
  • 22
    "An impeachment is by design not honouring the choice of the voters" - I get what you're trying to say here (I suppose), but you phrased that in a rather controversial way, as if the legal system and due process is purely dictatorial, as opposed to a cornerstone of democracy and civilised society.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 14:28
  • 2
    "At no point have the choices of the voters not been honoured." - except for the voters hoping to get violet coalition, of course.
    – Mołot
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 15:28
  • 7
    @Mołot you don't vote for a government, you vote for a representative, and the chosen representatives form a government from amongst them. It so happens that they have generally teamed up before hand.
    – Caleth
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 15:30
  • 2
    @Caleth As someone from a country where it's a pretty rare occurrence that a government actually holds to the end of their term (The Netherlands - we also tend to have coalitions with at least 3 parties), I can positively state that a vote of no confidence definitely does not have to be strategical. Rather, it's often an effect of cooperation breaking down.
    – Jasper
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 9:39

Impeachment is a prosecution process; it only applies for gross misconduct, and the threshold for its success is really high. The PM can retire with only moderate shame after losing a vote of no confidence, but an president who is impeached and convicted ought to go to jail.

A vote of no confidence, on the other hand, simply indicates that the government is unable to pass critical legislation such as spending bills, and must be immediately replaced by a new government. The equivalent in the US process is more like the "government shutdown" that can be triggered by failing to raise the debt ceiling. In my opinion it's a serious bug in the US system that this does not trigger new elections.

Another key distinction is that the President in a presidential system is the head of state, and supposed to be somewhat more permanent. Corresponding to the monarch or Govenor-General in a Westminster system. The Prime Minister corresponds more to "majority leader".

  • 3
    Your first paragraph isn't wrong, per se, that is certainly how impeachment is perceived today; but in my opinion none of those are inevitable consequences of how impeachment was defined in the constitution (nor, in some cases, how it was viewed by the founders). I do think your last paragraph is key, though; changing the US Speaker of the House in the US might be a newsworthy event to politics junkies, but absolutely of a different scale than removing a president.
    – BradC
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 15:53
  • 4
    You appear to believe the government needs to run a deficit.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 18:52
  • 4
    I'd suggest this answer replace "failure to raise the debt ceiling" with "failure to pass a budget or continuing resolution," since that's closer to the "loss of supply" that happens in Parliamentary systems. The debt ceiling is an entirely different brand of silliness.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 19:17
  • 8
    @Joshua the government can run what ever kind of budget it wants, but it should be by a process which produces a budget and not just arbitrarily failing to pay the salaries of its staff for a few months.
    – pjc50
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:25
  • 6
    @BradC The Constitution literally defines an impeachment as a trial. "The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments." "No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two third of members present." "Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office..." (excerpts from Article I, Section 3, paragraphs 6 and 7.)
    – reirab
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 16:53

Unlike parliamentary systems, the US opted for a system by which power would merely be transferred from person to person, until a new election cycle. So if you're going to Impeach (indict) a political figure, you need

  1. A solid reason for doing so. You can't do this on a whim and drum up some charges, you need the electorate to understand why an elected (or appointed) official is being removed.
  2. Political support. Impeachment is a political process. The Constitution, for instance, is intentionally vague on why a President may be removed ("high crimes and misdemeanors" is not a legal term). Remember, the people doing the impeachment will have to face their voters, and some of them may have voted for the person being impeached.

It's that second reason that has likely kept both impeached Presidents in office.

Keep in mind that resignation is more common. Richard Nixon would almost certainly have been impeached if he had not resigned.

Removal from office, following impeachment, at other levels is a bit more common,

  • 4
    Actually two US presidents have been impeached, but that is only the first part of the process, comparable to an indictment. Neither was subsequently convicted in the Senate or removed as a result (in contrast, another who did leave office resigned before an impeachment vote was taken). Your list of incidents with holders of other offices appears to actually be of those who were convicted and removed; the list of those impeached would be longer. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 15:15
  • @ChrisStratton Yeah, it's confusing because Impeachment is the start of the process, not the end. So my list is successful removals
    – Machavity
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 16:10

Cannot stress enough that they are two utterly different things:

  1. Impeachment is the process of determining an official has committed a, or several, crimes that are of a nature that he cannot continue in office. Note that AFTER impeachment occurs, there is a trial in which the official may be convicted (and tossed from office) or not convicted (and goes onward in office).

  2. A vote of "No confidence" is one of several methods by which a parliamentary system of government's officials acknowledge that the current officials probably do not represent the current will of the people and that this is pronounced enough that a new set of officials is warranted (along with the expense and nastiness of an election). Actually, it would be better stated as "THE method by which..." as the main other methods of initiating an election are more arbitrary (a term length like, say, 7 years maximum, or a Head of State being able to "call" an election).

Nothing like each other.

Impeachment follows a crime, or six, while a vote of "No confidence" is basically an election call, no crimes involved.

As to the crimes considered for impeachment, in the US they tend to be crimes that undermine the government itself, governmental process, or the specific office's area of responsibility.

An example is a judge taking bribes. That undermines the judicial process itself. This is what he is usually impeached for. A particular federal judge from my area was impeached for this. Then, after conviction and removal, he was later charged with other offenses while in office (of the sort where he "leaned on" local officials to send work crews to build a nice driveway for him, a pool, and so on). He would probably not have been impeached for those crimes, though a higher court might have gone through the process of censuring him, removing him from cases, having him disbarred, and then, once disbarred, removed from office as no longer qualified for it. Those crimes hurt the county's basic governmental process, but not HIS office so...

Nixon probably wouldn't have been impeached for knowing about and approving of the Watergate break-in. It was the obstruction of justice, exacerbated by his firing of non-pliable officials in the Department of Justice like the Attorney General that would have been his trial articles. Clinton had the same issue: lying under oath to an investigating official (judge or not) obstructs justice. For Presidents, obstructing justice is like taking Olympic wrestling, writing scripts, and making it Big Time Fake Wrestling. It destroys the government itself in a way that a President accompanying the burglars in their burglary does not, hence impeachment.

Consider the last couple of paragraphs. Absolutely nothing in them is anything in the least like a vote of "no confidence" — they may seem similar, but they are utterly different.

  • 2
    The first two points are solid, but I think the commentary goes a bit off the rails. Corruption of sufficient scale could absolutely get someone impeached, and the Clinton impeachment process was a political sham that got slapped down hard in the Senate (this was before the hyperpartisanization of the Senate) and resulted in a loss of seats for the Republicans. Gore probably could have won the presidency if Clinton was campaigning with him instead of on a locked box. Lindsay Graham is pretty much the only person who participated in his impeachment who came out of the process gracefully.
    – Alex H.
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 17:16

I'd think the philosophy behind it is that it depends who "appointed" the official in the first place. In a parliamentary democracy, the voters chose the parliament, but the prime minister and other secretaries are appointed by the parliament.

A president, otoh, is "appointed" by all the voters.

So to cancel the appointment of a PM or secretary, it should be enough for parliament to cancel their decision, which can be done by a simple vote in parliament.
It's conceptually not that different from a president firing one of his secretaries, although usually when the PM is fired by parliament (vote of no confidence), that has more serious effects, as it's often seen as effectively a vote of no confidence on the entire cabinet/government. In the Netherlands, it means new elections, although I'm not sure about the situation in other countries.

The "cancellation of appointment" of a president should philosophically also be done by those who made the original decision: all voters.
Pragmatically, it's not useful to have to consult the entire population whenever something comes up, so usually it means a president can only be replaced when new elections are scheduled. And for extreme cases, there are provisions so that parliament/congress/senate/... can impeach a president if he is clearly not functioning well or has committed serious crimes. E.g. in the US, he can be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors".

But I think in a well-functioning democracy, when a majority of all voters are clearly calling for a presidents resignation (think mass protests), that should mean the end of a presidency. Whether by legal means, or by a president "voluntarily" stepping down.

  • The description of parliamentary democracy doesn't fit either of the two instances which I more-or-less understand. In both the UK and Spain the prime minister is formally chosen by the monarch. In addition, in both systems a vote of no confidence does not (always) trigger elections. In the UK, since 2011, it triggers a two-week period in which the monarch can try to find someone else who can command the confidence of Parliament. In Spain, a motion of no confidence must name the person who will take over as prime minister. The current Spanish PM gained the post by this process six months ago. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 11:32
  • I'm most familiar with the Dutch situation, but I've extended my answer a bit, thanks for noting. And the fact that a PM is formally appointed by a monarch is mostly a left-over from earlier times, when the monarch still had a lot of power. In practice, parliament decides who is acceptable and who is not, the monarch can't just appoint someone. That's just like saying parliament can't fire a PM: formally they can't, but a vote of no confidence effectively means the same.
    – Emil Bode
    Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 14:46
  • Certainly the monarch can't make arbitrary choices, but it's maybe too reductionist to say that it's parliament's choice. In practice, the party with most seats will typically get first shot at forming a coalition, so there's a sense in which the voters have a significant input too. A careful and precise formulation probably needs an essay, not an SE answer or comment! Thanks for the clarification about which system you know best. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 15:56

I won't rehash what others have said.

An impeachment is a trial.

In Australia we are ruled by a Governor General sitting in the Executive Council with some ministers advising. That's it.

We have an entire parallel unofficial government structure that really rules us. That is prime minister and ministers sitting in cabinet. But there is no such official thing as a cabinet.

The GG has to take advice from the ministers sitting in the executive council. Yet any decision making powers ministers have are delegated from the GG.

A government is formed by the person believed to be able to pass supply in parliament. The outgoing Prime Minister will advise the GG who he believes that is.

The person will be asked can you pass supply. If yes they will be sworn in. Note the election counting is still going on and the election is days away from being declared.

Motions of confidence/no confidence and bills of supply (depends who moves them) are testing the ability of the government to control parliament. Not passing supply or have the parliament's confidence will mean the government will resign.

It is not a trial. It's a test of numbers.

It is nearly always bought on as a piece of political drama by the opposition, in the hope of getting on the nightly news. It rarely is of any actual importance. It is a debating tactic.


Impeachment is a slow, protracted process that requires sustained effort and support. A no confidence motion is a single vote.

Impeachment is therefore much less attractive. Even if it works it takes so long as to often be ineffective, and can easily backfire if it turns out that the impeached politician is innocent or they manage to gain public support. Clinton is a good example, most Republicans involved ended up regretting the decision to start failed impeachment procedures.

A vote of no confidence is much quicker and once won puts the ball in the government's court, forcing them to deal with the fall-out and placing the blame for anything that happens subsequently with them. It also only requires winning a single vote on a single day, with no evidence or enquiry required, so the bar to success is much lower.


With respect to the United States, impeachment is meant to remove officials for reasons of gross misconduct (treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors), rather than a simple inability to govern (in the sense of not being able to muster votes).

A recent episode of the podcast All The President's Lawyers talked about the history of impeachment in the US, and how the founders would likely be somewhat surprised that it hasn't been used more often. The modern thinking is that impeachment is reserved for offenses that count as actual crimes (such as perjury and obstruction of justice), but that hasn't always been the case. Judge John Pickering was impeached in 1803 for, among other reasons, being drunk and abusive on the bench.

However, when it comes to Presidential impeachments, it's probably a good thing that it hasn't been used more often. It's not something you want to become a norm.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .