A head of state is the individual that serves as the chief public representative of a monarchy, republic, federation, commonwealth or other kind of state. His or her role generally includes legitimizing the state and exercising the political powers, functions and duties granted to the head of state in the country's constitution and laws. In nation states the head of state is often thought of as the official "leader" of the nation.

Charles de Gaulle described the role he envisaged for the French president when he wrote the modern French constitution, stating the head of state should embody "the spirit of the nation" for the nation itself and the world: une certaine idée de la France (a certain idea about France). Today, many countries expect their head of state to embody national values in a similar fashion.

The same role in a federal constituent and a dependent territory is fulfilled by the corresponding office equivalent to that of a head of state. For example, in Canadian provinces the role is fulfilled by the lieutenant governors, whereas in British dependent territories the powers and duties are performed by the governors. The same applies to Australian states, Indian states, etc. Hong Kong's constitutional document, the Basic Law, for example, specifies the chief executive as the head of the special administrative region, in addition to his role as the head of government. These non-sovereign-state heads, nevertheless, have limited or no role in diplomatic affairs, depending on the status and the norms and practices of the territories concerned.

Constitutional models[edit | edit source]

In protocolary terms, states are distinguished as monarchy or republic depending on the style (and usually mode of accession, see below) of their head of state, a typical constitutional provision, but as such this is not defining for the actual political system, which often evolves significantly, or can remain unaltered in other respects despite a transition from monarchy to republic (or, rarer, vice versa).

Different state constitutions (fundamental laws) establish different political systems, but four major types of heads of state can be distinguished:

  1. The non-executive head of state system, in which the head of state does not hold any executive power and mainly plays a symbolic role on behalf of the state;
  2. The parliamentary system, in which the head of state possesses executive power but the exercise of this power is done on the advice of a cabinet;
  3. The semi-presidential system, in which the head of state shares exercise with a head of government; and
  4. The presidential system, in which the head of state is also the head of government and actively exercises executive power.

Non-executive head of state[edit | edit source]

Its holders are excluded completely from the executive: they do not possess even theoretical executive powers or any role, even formal, within the government. Hence their states' governments are not referred to by the traditional parliamentary model head of state styles of "His/Her Majesty's Government" or "His/Her Excellency's Government." Within this general category, variants in terms of powers and functions may exist. The King of Sweden, since the passage of the modern Swedish constitution (the 1974 Instrument of Government), no longer has any of the parliamentary system head of state functions that had previously belonged to Swedish kings, but still receives formal cabinet briefings monthly in the royal palace. In contrast, the only contact the Irish president has with the Irish government is through a formal briefing session given by the Taoiseach (prime minister) to the President. However, he or she has no access to documentation and all access to ministers goes through the Department of the Taoiseach (prime minister's office). The President does however hold reserve powers, such as referring a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, which are used under the president's discretion.

Parliamentary system[edit | edit source]

Queen Elizabeth II, one of the world's best-known and longest-serving heads of state

In parliamentary systems the head of state may be merely the nominal chief executive officer of the state, possessing executive power (hence the description of the monarch's governments in the UK Commonwealth realms as His/Her Majesty's Government; a term indicating that all power belongs to the sovereign and the government acts on Her Majesty's behalf, not parliament's). In reality however, following a process of constitutional evolution, powers are usually only exercised by direction of a cabinet, presided over by a prime minister who is answerable to the legislature. This accountability requires that someone be chosen from parliament who has parliament's support (or, at least, not parliament's opposition - a subtle but important difference). It also gives parliament the right to vote down the government, forcing it either to resign or seek a parliamentary dissolution. Governments are thus said to be responsible (or answerable) to parliament, with the government in turn accepting constitutional responsibility for offering constitutional advice to the head of state.

In parliamentary constitutional monarchies, the legitimacy of the unelected head of state typically derives from the tacit approval of the people via the elected representatives. Accordingly, at the time of the Glorious Revolution, the English Parliament acted of its own authority to name a new king and queen (joint monarchs Mary II and William III); likewise, Edward VIII's abdication required the approval of the parliament in each of Edward's six independent realms. In monarchies with a written constitution, the position of monarch is a creature of the constitution and could quite properly be abolished through a democratic procedure of constitutional amendment, although there are often significant procedural hurdles imposed on such a procedure (as in the Constitution of Spain).

In republics with a parliamentary system (such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Israel) the head of state is usually titled "president" or its equivalent, but the main functions of such a president are ceremonial, as opposed to the president in a presidential or semi-presidential system.

In reality, numerous variants exist to the position of a head of state within a parliamentary system. The older the constitution, the more constitutional leeway tends to exist for a head of state to exercise greater powers over government, as many older parliamentary system constitutions in fact give heads of state powers and functions akin to presidential or semi-presidential systems, in some cases without containing reference to modern democratic principles of accountability to parliament or even to modern governmental offices. Usually, the King had the power of declaring war without previous consent of the Parliament.
For example, under the 1848 constitution of the Kingdom of Italy , the "Statuto Albertino", the parliamentary approval to the government appointed by the King was customary, but not required by law. So, Italy had a de facto parliamentarian system, but a de jure "presidential" system.
Some Commonwealth parliamentary systems combine a body of written constitutional law, unwritten constitutional precedent, Orders-in-Council, letters patent, etc. that may give a head of state or their representative additional powers in unexpected circumstances (such as the dismissal of Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam by Governor-General Sir John Kerr.)

Other examples of heads of state in parliamentary systems using greater powers than usual, either because of ambiguous constitutions or unprecedented national emergencies, include the decision by King Léopold III of the Belgians to surrender on behalf of his state to the invading German army in 1940, against the will of his government. Judging that his responsibility to the nation by virtue of his coronation oath required him to act, he believed that his government's decision to fight rather than surrender was mistaken and would damage Belgium. (Leopold's decision proved highly controversial. After World War II, Belgium voted in a referendum to allow him back on the throne, but because of the ongoing controversy he ultimately abdicated.)

Semi-presidential systems[edit | edit source]

President Charles de Gaulle was responsible for establishing the semi-presidential system of France.

Semi-presidential systems combine features of presidential and parliamentary systems, notably a requirement that the government be answerable to both the president and the legislature. The constitution of the Fifth French Republic provides for a prime minister who is chosen by the president, but who nevertheless must be able to gain support in the National Assembly. Should a president be of one side of the political spectrum and the opposition be in control of the legislature, the president is usually obliged to select someone from the opposition to become prime minister, a process known as Cohabitation. President François Mitterrand, a Socialist, for example, was forced to cohabit with the neo-Gaullist (right wing) Jacques Chirac, who became his prime minister from 1986 to 1988. In the French system, in the event of cohabitation, the president is often allowed to set the policy agenda in foreign affairs and the prime minister runs the domestic agenda.

Other countries evolve into something akin to a semi-presidential system or indeed a full presidential system. Weimar Germany, for example, in its constitution provided for a popularly elected president with theoretically dominant executive powers that were intended to be exercised only in emergencies, and a cabinet appointed by him from the Reichstag, which was expected, in normal circumstances, to be answerable to the Reichstag. Initially, the President was merely a symbolic figure with the Reichstag dominant; however, persistent political instability, in which governments often lasted only a few months, led to a change in the power structure of the republic, with the president's emergency powers called increasingly into use to prop up governments challenged by critical or even hostile Reichstag votes. By 1932, power had shifted to such an extent that the German President, Paul von Hindenburg, was able to dismiss a chancellor and select his own person for the job, even though the outgoing chancellor possessed the confidence of the Reichstag while the new chancellor did not. Subsequently President von Hindenburg used his power to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor without consulting the Reichstag.

Presidential system[edit | edit source]

George Washington, the first president of the United States, set the precedent for an executive head of state in republican governments.

Note: The head of state in a "presidential" system may not actually hold the title of "president" - the name of the system refers to any head of state who actually governs and is independent of the legislature.

Some constitutions or fundamental laws provide for a head of state who is not just in theory but in practice chief executive, operating separately from, and independent from, the legislature. This system is known as a "presidential system" and sometimes called the "imperial model", because the executive officials of the government are answerable solely and exclusively to a presiding, acting head of state, and is selected by and on occasion dismissed by the head of state without reference to the legislature. It is notable that some presidential systems, while not providing for collective executive answerability to the legislature, may require legislative approval for individuals prior to their assumption of cabinet office and empower the legislature to remove a president from office (for example, in the United States of America). In this case the debate centres on the suitability of the individual for office, not a judgment on them when appointed, and does not involve the power to reject or approve proposed cabinet members en bloc, so it is not answerability in the sense understood in a parliamentary system.

Presidential systems are a notable feature of constitutions in the Americas, including those of the United States, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico; this is generally attributed to the influence of the United States Constitution, as the United States served as an inspiration and model for the Latin American wars of independence of the early 19th century. Most presidents in such countries are selected by democratic means (popular direct or indirect election); however, like all other systems, the presidential model also encompasses people who become head of state by other means, notably through military dictatorship or coup d'état, as often seen in Latin American, Middle Eastern and other presidential regimes. Some of the characteristics of a presidential system (i.e., a strong dominant political figure with an executive answerable to them, not the legislature) can also be found among absolute monarchies, parliamentary monarchies and single party (e.g. Communist) regimes, but in most cases of dictatorship apply their stated constitutional models in name only and not in political theory or practice.

In the 1870s in the United States, in the aftermath of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and his near-removal from office, it was speculated that the United States, too, would move from a presidential system to a semi-presidential or even parliamentary one, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives becoming the real center of government as a quasi-prime minister. This did not happen and the presidency, having been damaged by three late nineteenth and early twentieth century assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley) and one impeachment (Johnson), reasserted its political dominance by the early twentieth century through such figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In a sense, elected monarchies, such as the Holy Roman Empire , can be regarded as 'crowned' presidential systems.

Single-party states[edit | edit source]

Leonid Brezhnev twice was the head of state of the Soviet Union

Since real political power belongs to the head of the sole legal party, in certain states under Marxist constitutions of the constitutionally socialist state type inspired by the former USSR and its constitutive Soviet republics, there was no formal office of head of state, but rather the head of the legislative "soviet" branch of power was considered the head of state. In the Soviet Union this office carried such titles as Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR; Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council; and in the case of the Soviet Russia Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets (pre-1922), and Chairman of the Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian SFSR (1956–1966). This position may or may not have been held by the de facto Soviet leader at the moment. For example, Nikita Khrushchev never headed the Supreme Soviet but ruled as Secretary General of party and prime minister.

This may even lead to an institutional variability, as in North Korea, where, after the presidency of party leader Kim Il-Sung, the office was vacant for years, the late president being granted the posthumous title (akin to some ancient Far Eastern traditions to give posthumous names and titles to royalty) of president "in eternity" (while all real power, as party leader, itself not formally created for 4 years, was inherited by his son Kim Jong Il, initially without any formal office) until it was formally replaced on 5 September 1998, for ceremonial purposes, by the office of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, while the party leader's post as Chairman of the National Defense Commission was simultaneously declared "the highest post of the state", not unlike Deng Xiaoping earlier in the People's Republic of China.

Complications with categorisation[edit | edit source]

While clear categories do exist, it is sometimes difficult to choose which category some individual heads of state belong to. Constitutional change in Liechtenstein in 2003 gave its head of state, the Prince, constitutional powers that included a veto over legislation and power to dismiss the cabinet. It could be argued that the strengthening of the Prince's powers, vis-a-vis the legislature, has moved Liechtenstein into the semi-presidential category. Similarly the original powers given to the Greek President under the 1974 Hellenic Republic constitution moved Greece closer to the French semi-presidential model. In reality, the category to which each head of state belongs is assessed not by theory but by practice.

Another complication exists with South Africa, in which the President is in fact elected by the legislature (similar, in principle, to a prime minister) but also holds the title of President, serves for a fixed term, and is expected to be the nation's head of state. Nauru and Botswana are similar.

Panama, during the military dictatorships of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, was nominally a presidential republic. However, the elected civilian presidents were effectively figureheads with real political power being exercised by the chief of the military.

Roles of heads of state[edit | edit source]

Often depending on which constitutional category (above) a head of state belongs to, they may have some or all of the roles listed below, and various other ones.

Symbolic role[edit | edit source]

A large portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, with Prince Philip, hanging in a Canadian courthouse

One of the most important roles of the modern head of state is being a living national symbol of the state; in monarchies this extends to the sovereign being a symbol of the unbroken continuity of the state. For instance, the Canadian monarch is described by the government as being the personification of the Canadian state and is described by the Department of Canadian Heritage as the "personal symbol of allegiance, unity and authority for all Canadians".[1][2]

In many countries, official portraits of the head of state can be found in government offices, courts of law, even airports, libraries, and other public buildings. The idea, sometimes regulated by law, is to use these portraits to make the public aware of the symbolic connection to the government, a practice that dates back to mediaeval times. Sometimes this practice is taken to excess, and the head of state begins to believe that he is the only symbol of the nation, resulting in the emergence of a personality cult where the image of the head of state is the only visual representation of the country, surpassing other symbols such as the flag, constitution, founding father(s) etc. Modern champions in this field include Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Kim Jong Il, whose tenures as heads of state were or are accompanied by a significant cult of personality. Other common iconic presences, especially of monarchs, are on coins, stamps and banknotes; more discreet variations see them represented by a mention and/or signature. Furthermore, various institutions, monuments and the like, are named for current or previous heads of state, such as streets and squares, schools, charitable and other organizations; in monarchies (e.g. Belgium) there can even be a practice to attribute the adjective 'royal' on demand based on existence for a given number of years. However, such political techniques can also be used by leaders without the formal rank of head of state, even party - and other revolutionary leaders without formal state mandate.

In general, the active duties amount to a ceremonial role. Thus in diplomatic affairs, heads of state are often the first person to greet an important foreign visitor. They may also assume a sort of informal host role during the VIP's visit, inviting the visitor to a state dinner at his or her mansion or palace, or some other equally hospitable affair.

At home, they are expected to render luster to various occasions by their presence, such as by attending artistic or sports performances or competitions, expositions, celebrations, military parades and remembrances, prominent funerals, visiting parts of the country, enterprises, care facilities (often in a theatrical honour box, on a platform, on the front row, at the honours table etc.), sometimes performing a symbolic act such as cutting a ribbon or pushing a button at an opening, christening something with champagne, laying the first stone, and so on. Some parts of national life receive their regular attention, often on an annual basis, or even in the form of official patronage.

As the potential for such invitations is enormous, such duties are often in part delegated: to such persons as a spouse, other members of the dynasty, a vice-president —for whom this is often the core of their public role— or in other cases (possibly as a message, for instance, to distance themselves without giving protocollary offence) just a military or other aide.

For non-executive heads of state there is often a degree of censorship by the politically responsible government (such as the prime minister), discreetly approving agenda and speeches, especially where the constitution (or customary law) assumes all political responsibility by granting the crown inviolability (in fact also imposing political emasculation) as in the Kingdom of Belgium from its very beginning; in a monarchy this may even be extended to some degree to other members of the dynasty, especially the heir to the throne.

Chief diplomatic officer[edit | edit source]

The head of state accredits (i.e. formally validates) his or her country's ambassadors, High Commissioners or rarer equivalent diplomatic mission chiefs (such as papal nuncio), through sending formal Letter of Credence to other heads of state and, conversely, receives the letters of their foreign counterparts. Without that accreditation, they cannot take up a role and receive the highest diplomatic status. However, there are provisions in international law to perform the same diplomatic functions, or at least part of them, such as accrediting, with a lower title with the head of government, or functioning within another mission.

The head of state also signs international treaties on behalf of the state, or has them signed in his/her name by ministers (government members or diplomats); subsequent ratification, when necessary, usually rests with the legislature.

In Canada, these head of state powers belong to the sovereign as part of the Royal Prerogative,[3][4][5][6] but the governor general has been permitted to exercise them since 1947 and has done so since the 1970s.[6][7] In Australia and New Zealand, they have been assumed by the Governor-General.

Example 1: Article 59 (1) of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany states:
The Federal President shall represent the Federation in its international relations. He shall conclude treaties with foreign states on behalf of the Federation. He shall accredit and receive envoys.
Example 2: Section 2, Article 81 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China states:
The President of the People's Republic of China receives foreign diplomatic representatives on behalf of the People's Republic of China and, in pursuance of decisions of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, appoints and recalls plenipotentiary representatives abroad, and ratifies and abrogates treaties and important agreements concluded with foreign states.

Chief executive officer[edit | edit source]

In the majority of states, whether republics or monarchies, executive authority is vested, at least notionally, in the head of state. In presidential systems the head of state is the actual, de facto chief executive officer. Under parliamentary systems the executive authority is exercised by the head of state, but in practice is done so on the advice of the cabinet of ministers. This produces such terms as "Her Majesty's Government" and "His Excellency's Government." Examples of parliamentary systems in which the head of state is notional chief executive include Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Italy and the United Kingdom. The few exceptions include the Czech Republic, Ireland and Sweden, where executive authority is explicitly vested in the cabinet.

Example 1 (presidential system): Article 2, Section 1 of the United States Constitution states:
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.
Example 2 (constitutional monarchy): According to Section 12 of the Constitution of Denmark 1953:
Subject to the limitations laid down in this Constitution Act the King shall have the supreme authority in all the affairs of the Realm, and he shall exercise such supreme authority through the Ministers.
Example 3 (constitutional monarchy): Under Chapter II, Section 61 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900:
The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.
Example 4 (republican parliamentary system): According to Article 26 (2) of the 1975 Constitution of Greece:
The executive power shall be exercised by the President of the Republic and by the government.

Chief appointments officer[edit | edit source]

The head of state appoints most or all the key officials in the government and civil service, including members of the cabinet, the prime minister or equivalent, key judicial figures, and all major office holders. In many parliamentary systems, the head of government (e.g. prime minister) is appointed with the consent (in practice often decisive) of the legislature, and other figures are appointed on the head of government's advice. Some countries have alternative provisions: under Article 4 of the Instrument of Government, 1974, the constitution of Sweden grants to the parliamentary speaker the role of formally appointing the prime minister.

In practice, these decisions are often a formality. The last time a British monarch unilaterally selected the UK's prime minister was in 1963, when Queen Elizabeth II appointed Sir Alec Douglas-Home on the advice of the outgoing prime minister Harold Macmillan. In Canada, a similar situation took place in 1925 wherein Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy appointed Arthur Meighen after William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to resign the premiership (known as the King-Byng Affair). Governor-General of Australia Sir John Kerr appointed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker prime minister after dismissing Gough Whitlam.

In presidential systems, such as that of the United States, appointments are nominated by the President's sole discretion, but this nomination is often subject to parliamentary confirmation (in the case of the US, the Senate has to approve cabinet nominees and judicial appointments by simple majority).

The head of state may also dismiss office-holders. There are many variants on how this can be done. For example, members of the Irish Cabinet are dismissed by the President on the advice of the Taoiseach (prime minister); in other instances, the head of state may be able to dismiss an office holder unilaterally; other heads of state, or their representatives, have the theoretical power to dismiss any office-holder, while it is exceptionally rarely used. In France, while the president cannot force the prime minister to tender the resignation of his government, he can, in practice, request it if the prime minister is from his own majority. In presidential systems, the president often has the power to fire ministers at his sole discretion. In the United States, convention calls for cabinet secretaries to resign on their own initiative when called to do so.

Example 1 (semi-presidential system): Chapter 4, Section 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea states:
The Prime Minister is appointed by the President with the consent of the National Assembly.
Example 2 (parliamentary system): Article 13.1.1 of the Constitution of Ireland:
The President shall, on the nomination of Dáil Éireann [the lower house], appoint the Taoiseach [prime minister].

Legislative roles[edit | edit source]

President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 into law; to his right is the new law’s namesake, Lilly Ledbetter.

Most countries require that all bills passed by the house or houses of the legislature be signed into law by the head of state. In some states, such as the United Kingdom, Belgium and Ireland, the head of state is, in fact, formally considered a tier of parliament. However, in most parliamentary systems, the head of state cannot refuse to sign a bill, and, in granting a bill their assent, indicate that it was passed in accordance with the correct procedures. The signing of a bill into law is formally known as promulgation. Some monarchical states call this procedure Royal Assent.

Example 1 (presidential system): Article 1, Section 7 of the United States Constitution states:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approves he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated...
Example 2 (parliamentary system): Section 11.a.1. of the Basic Laws of Israel states:
The President of the State shall sign every Law, other than a Law relating to its powers.

In some parliamentary systems, the head of state retains certain powers in relation to bills to be exercised at his or her discretion. They may have authority to veto a bill until the houses of the legislature have reconsidered it, and approved it a second time; reserve a bill to be signed later, or suspend it indefinitely (generally in states with the Royal Prerogative; this power is rarely used); refer a bill to the courts to test its constitutionality; refer a bill to the people in a referendum.

If he or she is also chief executive, he or she can thus politically control the necessary executive measures without which a proclaimed law can remain dead letter, sometimes for years or even forever.

Military role[edit | edit source]

United States President Ronald Reagan reviews a line of troops at the recommissioning ceremony for the USS New Jersey.

A head of state is generally the literal, or notional, commander-in-chief of a state's armed forces, holding the highest office in all military chains of command.

Example 1: Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.
Example 2: Article III, Section 15 of the Constitution Act, 1867, a part of the Constitution of Canada, states:
The Command-in-Chief of the Land and Naval Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue to be vested in the Queen.[8]

In a constitutional monarchy or non-executive presidency the head of state may hold the ultimate authority over the armed forces but will only normally, as per either written or conventional laws, exercise their authority on the advice of their ministers, meaning de facto decision making on military manoeuvers lies with the cabinet. The monarch or president will, however, perform ceremonial duties related to the country's armed forces, and will sometimes appear in military uniform for these purposes; in the case of a female sovereign her consort and other members of the royal family may also appear in military garb. This is generally the only time a head of state of a stable, democratic country will appear dressed in such a manner, as statesmen and public are eager to assert the primacy of (civilian, elected) politics over the armed forces.

In military dictatorships, or governments which have arisen from coups-d'etat, the position of commander-in-chief is obvious, as all authority in such a government derives from the application of military force; occasionally a power vacuum created by war is filled by a head of state stepping beyond his or her normal constitutional role, as King Albert I of Belgium did during World War I. In these and in revolutionary regimes, the head of state, and often executive ministers whose offices are legally civilian, will frequently appear in military uniform.

Summoning and dissolving the legislature[edit | edit source]

A head of state is often empowered to summon and dissolve the country's legislature. In most parliamentary systems, this is done on the advice of the head of government (e.g. Prime Minister) or cabinet. In some parliamentary systems, and in some presidential systems, however, the head of state may do so on their own initiative. Some states have fixed term parliaments, with no option of bringing forward elections (e.g. Article II, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution). In other systems there are usually fixed terms, but the head of state retains authority to dissolve the legislature in certain circumstances. Where a head of government has lost the confidence of parliament, some heads of state may refuse a parliamentary dissolution, where one is requested, forcing the head of government's resignation.

Example: Article 13.2.2. of the Constitution of Ireland states:
The President may in absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dáil Éireann on the advice of a Taoiseach [Prime Minister] who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann

Other prerogatives[edit | edit source]

Selection and various types and styles of Heads of State[edit | edit source]

Various heads of state use a multitude of different styles and titles, often with many variations in content under diverse constitutions, even in a given state. In numerous cases, two or more of the following peculiar types apply, not counting the primary duo monarchy-republic. There are also several methods of head of state succession in the event of the removal or death of a sitting head of state.

In a monarchy, the Monarch is the Head of State. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; until the last few decades a sovereign was seen as the personal embodiment of the state ("L'etat c'est moi", so to speak), and therefore could not be head of himself or herself (hence many constitutions from the 19th century and earlier make no mention of a "head of state"). Though some still maintain that calling a Monarch Head of State is incorrect, it has now become a widespread political convention to attach the label to Monarchs, regardless of their political position. The Emperor of Japan is defined as a symbol, not head, of state by the post-war constitution (contrasting with the former divine status) but is treated as an imperial head of state under diplomatic protocol (even ranking above kings) and retains Shinto mystique.

For the numerous styles in past and present monarchies, in most cases commonly -though often not quite accurately- rendered as King or Emperor, but also many other (e.g. Grand duke, Sultan), see Prince, princely state and monarchy.

In a republic, the head of state is nowadays usually styled President, and usually their permanent constitutions provide for election, but many have or had other titles and even specific constitutional positions (see below), and some have used simply 'head of state' as their only formal title.

Shared and substitute heads of state[edit | edit source]

Interim[edit | edit source]

Whenever a head of state is not available for any reason, constitutional provisions may allow the role to fall temporarily to an assigned person or collective body. In a republic, this is - depending on provisions outlined by the constitution or improvised - a vice-president, the chief of government, the legislature or its presiding officer. In a monarchy, this is usually a regent or collegial regency (council). For example, in the United States the Vice-President acts when the President is incapacitated, and in the United Kingdom the Queen's powers may be delegated to Counsellors of State when she is abroad or unavailable.

Delegation[edit | edit source]

Where one person is head of state of multiple sovereign countries (such as in a personal union), there may be need to appoint a permanent representative in each (or excepting in the head of state's country of primary residence). Examples include Commonwealth realms –  where the individual who acts as their respective monarch resides in the oldest realm, the United Kingdom, and so is represented in the others by an appointed governor-general (unhyphenated in Canada as governor general) –  and Andorra –  which is headed by two non-resident co-princes, one of which is also the President of France.

A Commonwealth realm's governor-general may fulfil many of the roles of a head of state, but is typically not, either legally or conventionally, regarded as the head of state, but rather as an appointed representative of the head of state mandated to act in his or her place, even when the monarch is present in the country. Some governors-general are considered de facto heads of state because, though not the de jure (juridical or legal) head of state, in practice they function like a head of state in most or all jurisdictions. In diplomatic situations, governors-general are sometimes accorded a status akin to a head of state, but that is by tradition and on a case by case and person by person basis, not automatic. At state banquets, for example, toasts are made to the head of state, not to a governor-general, except insofar as a personal toast may be proposed subsequently to "Governor-General and Mrs. X" as hosts of, or guests at, the banquet. Similarly, letters of credence may contain the name of the head of state, not the governor-general, even if it is the latter who signs and receives them; in 2005, Canada, Australia and New Zealand changed their policies and now all letters of credence solely address the governor-general of the relevant nation, not to the sovereign. There has been debate in Australia and Canada as to which person is actually considered head of state.

Sir Paulias Matane, Governor-General of Papua New Guinea, was the viceregal representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Papua New Guinea

In the case of Andorra, two Co-Princes act as the principality's heads of state; one is also simultaneously the President of France, residing in France, and the other is the Bishop of Urgell, residing in Spain. Each Co-Prince is represented in Andorra by a delegate, though these persons hold no formal title.

As a colony or other dependent state or territory lacks the authority to vest in a true head of state of its own, it either has no comparable office, simply receiving those roles exercised by the paramount powers (in person or, most of the time, through an appointed representative, often styled governor or lieutenant-governor, but also various other titles, on the Cook Islands even simply King/Queen's Representative) or has one, such as a formerly sovereign dynasty, but under a form of metropolitan guardianship, such as protection, vassal or tributary status.

Extraordinary arrangements[edit | edit source]

In exceptional situations, such as war, occupation, revolution or a coup d'état, constitutional institutions, including the symbolically crucial head of state, may be reduced to a figurehead or be suspended in favor of an emergency office (such as the original Roman Dictator) or eliminated by a new 'provisionary' regime, such as a collective of the junta type, or removed by an occupying force, such as a military governor (an early example being the Spartan Harmost).

Theocratic, ecclesiocratic and other 'pious' Heads of State[edit | edit source]

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Pope Benedict XVI

Since Antiquity, various dynasties—or individual rulers—claimed to have received the right to rule by divine authority, such as a mandate of heaven.

Some monarchs even claimed divine ancestry, e.g. both the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Great Inca claimed descent from their respective sun gods, and often maintained this legitimating bloodline by incestuous marriages with predecessors' female descandants. In pagan Rome, during the Principate, the title divus ('divine') was conferred, notably posthumously, on the Princeps (commonly rendered as Emperor after the separate, not reserved title Imperator, but constitutionally a republican office; formally the two eponymous consuls remained the joint heads of state), a symbolically crucial legitimating element in establishing a de facto dynasty.

In Christianity (Roman Catholicism, and in some cases continued by Protestant faiths):

In Islam:

  • Caliphs were the spiritual and temporal, absolute successors of the Prophet Mohammed, but gradually lost political power. Various political Muslim leaders since styled themselves Caliph and served as dynastic heads of state, sometimes in addition to another title, such as the Ottoman Sultan.
  • Imam of rare theocratic Muslim states known as imamates; notably:
    • the present sultanate of Oman (`Uman) was ruled 661 - 1811/1821 by the Ibadi community under a religious leader styled Imam al-Muslimin "Imam of the Muslims"), a member of the Azd clan, with several interruptions under foreign rulers; in 1784 while Imam rule continued, Muscat and Oman became a de facto sovereign state under a secular Al ´Bu Sa`id ruler; 3 October 1868 - January 1871 Imam rule was briefly restored.
    • in Yemen, and with suzerainty over other parts of the Arabian peninsula
    • in (Lower) `Asir, under the Idris dynasty, the religious style of Imam was combined with the temporal ruler style of Sheikh from 1830. Since 1909 the higher style (assumed by the last of four Shaikhs) of Emir was used until 20 November 1930 when the shaikhdom was incorporated into Hejaz-Nejd (which became modern Saudi Arabia)
    • in Nejd the Emirs (1744–1817) were, from 15 January 1902, also Imams and Protectors of the Wahhabis (fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam)
    • the Adal Imams 1526 - 1548 ruled the later British Somalia and Somaliland (an interlude between Ottoman and other foreign regimes).
    • In some of the 19th-century Jihad states of the upper Niger (Mali), the Massina/Sise Jihad state, its successor states in Segu and Massina after its conquest, and the Tijaniyya Jihad state (though these leaders had a variety of actual powers, and were also often styled Almamy or Caliph; the last fama of the Samori Empire (formerly Wassulu) till its extinction by French colonization.
    • after the 1813 annexation into tsarist Russia by the Treaty of Gulistan, there was a nationalist 1828 - 1859 Imamate of Daghestan until its 1859 reincorporatation into the Russian Empire.
  • Sheikh, e.g., of the Sunni Sanusi order in Cyrenaica (Libya) since 1843, styled Emir since 25 October 1920
  • In the Islamic Republic of Iran the rahbar (Supreme Leader, at present Ali Khamenei) and a council of guardians, all Shiah clerics, hold the highest offices in terms of political power (hence some consider it a theocracy), above the elected (sometimes lay) President, who is formally the constitutional head of government.
  • The Aga Khans, a unique dynasty of temporal/religious leadership, leading an offshoot of Shiite Islam in Central and South Asia, once ranking among British India's princely states, continues to the present day.

In Hinduism, certain dynasties adopted a title expressing their positions as 'servant' of a patron deity of the state, but in the sense of a (prime) minister under a figure head of state, ruling 'in the name of' the patron god(ess), e.g.,

In Buddhism:

  • Some later Dalai Lamas (reincarnations of the Buddha) were both political and spiritual leader ("god-king") of some parts of Tibet in Late Imperial China to the People's Republic of China, where the powers were gradually reduced until the 14th's flight into exile in 1959.
  • Outer Mongolia, the former homeland of the imperial Genghis Khan-dynasty, was another lamaist theocracy from 1585, using various styles in several languages, see Khutughtu; replaced on 20 May 1924 by a Communist republic of Mongolia (which assigned the Head of State role to chairmanships), later democratised.

City states and crowned republics[edit | edit source]

  • The polis in Antiquity (actual Greek and many parallels, e.g., Italian) and the equivalent city states in the feudal era, and in some cases even much later, (many in Italy, the rest of the Holy Roman Empire, the Moorish taifa in Iberia, essentially tribal-type but urbanized regions throughout the world in the Maya civilization, etc.) offer a wide spectrum of styles, either monarchic (mostly identical to homonyms in larger states) or republican, see Chief magistrate
  • Doges were elected by their Italian aristocratic republics from a patrician nobility, but 'reigned' as sovereign dukes.
  • The paradoxical term crowned republic refers to various state arrangements that combine 'republican' and 'monarchic' characteristics
  • The Netherlands historically had officials called stadholders and stadholders-general, titles meaning 'lieutenant', i.e. or governor, originally for the Habsburg monarchs

Multiple or collective Heads of State[edit | edit source]

The Federal Council of Swiss Confederation, the seven-member collective Head of State of Switzerland, in 2011 (also depicted: Federal Chancellor, at the right)

A collective head of state can exist in republics (internal complexity): e.g. nominal triumvirates; the Directoire; the seven-member Swiss Federal Council, where each member acts in turn as ceremonial chief of state); Bosnia and Herzegovina (three member presidium, from three different nations); San Marino (two "Captains-regent"), which maintains the tradition of Italian medieval republics, where there always was an even number of consuls.

In condominiums, sovereignty is shared between two external powers: e.g. Andorra (president of France and bishop of Urgell, Spain, co-princes), and the former Anglo-French New Hebrides (each nation's head of state was represented by a high commissioner).

In the Roman Republic there were two heads of state, styled Consul, both of whom alternated months of authority during their year in office, similarly there was an even number of supreme magistrates in the Italic republics of Ancient Age. In the Athenian Republic there were nine supreme magistrates, styled archons. In Carthage there were two supreme magistrates, styled kings or suffetes (judges). In ancient Sparta there were two hereditary kings, belonging to two different dynasties.

Such arrangements are not to be confused with supranational entities which are not states and are not defined by a common monarchy but may (or not) have a symbolic, essentially protocollary, titled highest office, e.g. Head of the Commonwealth (held by the British crown, but not legally reserved for it) or 'Head of the Arab Union' (14 February - 14 July 1958, held by the Hashemite King of Iraq, during its short-lived Federation with Jordan, its Hashemite sister-realm).

Unique cases and titles[edit | edit source]

Though "president" and various monarchic titles are most commonly used for heads of state, in some nationalistic regimes (usually republics), the leader adopts, formally or de facto, a unique style simply meaning "leader" in the national language, such as Nazi Germany's single party chief and head of state and government, Adolf Hitler Führer (see that article for equivalents).

In 1959, when former British crown colony Singapore gained self-government, it adopted the Malay style Yang di-Pertuan Negara (literally means "head of state" in Malay) for its governor (the actual head of state remained the British monarch). The second and last incumbent of the office, Yusof bin Ishak, kept the style at the 31 August 1963 unilateral declaration of independence and after the 16 September 1963 accession to Malaysia as a state (so now as a constitutive part of the federation, a non-sovereign level). After expulsion from Malaysia on 9 August 1965, Singapore became a sovereign Commonwealth republic and installed Yusof bin Ishak as its first President.

There are also a few nations in which the exact title and definition of the office of head of state have been vague. During the Cultural Revolution, following the downfall of Liu Shaoqi, who was Chairman of the People's Republic of China, no successor was named, so the duties of the head of state were transferred collectively to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. This situation was later changed: the Head of State of the PRC is now the President of the People's Republic of China.

In North Korea, Kim Il-sung was named "eternal president" following his death and the presidency was abolished. As a result, the duties of the head of state are constitutionally delegated to the Supreme People's Assembly whose chairman is "Head of State for foreign affairs" and performs some of the roles of a Head of State, such as accrediting foreign ambassadors. However, the symbolic role of a Head of State is generally performed by Kim Jong-il, who as the leader of the party and military, is the most powerful person in North Korea.

There is debate as to whether Samoa is/was an elective monarchy or an aristocratic republic, given the comparative ambiguity of the title O le Ao o le Malo and the nature of the head of state's office.

In some states the office of head of state is not expressed in a specific title reflecting that role, but constitutionally awarded to a post of another formal nature. Thus in March 1979 Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, who kept absolute power (still known as "Guide of the Revolution"), after ten years as combined Head of State and Head of government of the Libyan Jamahiriya ("state of the masses"), styled Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, formally transferred both qualities to the General secretaries of the General People's Congress (comparable to a Speaker) respectively to a Prime Minister, in political reality both his creatures.

Sometimes a head of state assumes office as a state becomes legal and political reality, before a formal title for the highest office is determined; thus in the since 1 January 1960 independent republic Cameroon (Cameroun, a former French colony), the first President, Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo, was at first not styled président but 'merely' known as Chef d'état (literal French for 'Head of State') until 5 May 1960; in Uganda, military coup leader since 25 January 1971 Idi Amin was formally styled military head of State till 21 February 1971, only from then on regular (but unconstitutional, not elected) President.

In certain cases a special style is needed to accommodate imperfect statehood, e.g. the title Sardar-i-Riyasat was used in Kashmir after its accession to India, and PLO-leader Yasser Arafat was styled the first "President of the Palestinian National Authority" in 1994.

Legitimacy and term in office[edit | edit source]

Template:Copy edit-section The position of head of state (within, or as well as, the state) can be established in different ways, and based on different legitimations.

  • Force is often the true origin of power, but to keep the victor’s right, formal legitimacy must be found, even if by fictitious claim of continuity such as forged descent or legacy from a previous dynasty
  • There have also been true cases of granting sovereignty, such as dynastic splits (not just by laws of succession, also by deliberate acts); this is usually forced, such as self-determination granted after nationalist revolts, or the last Attalid king of Hellenistic Pergamon by testament leaving his realm to Rome (to avoid a disastrous conquest)
  • Under theocracy, divine status (as the Pharaoh's; compare Roman divus and mandate of heaven as in imperial China) can render earthly authority under divine law, theoretically unchallengeable; on the other hand, it can take the form of supreme divine authority above the state's, giving the priesthood that voices and interprets it a tool for political influence, control or even dominance (thus Pharaoh Echnaton's reforms were undone by the Amun-priesthood after his death, possibly even elimination); often there is no clear model, so over time power can be disputed, as between the Pope and Holy Roman emperor in the Investiture conflict, as the temporal power seeks to guarantee its legitimation, including a formal ceremony during the coronation (such as unction; often crucial for popular support), by controlling key nominations in the clergy
  • The notion of a social contract holds that the nation (the whole people, or just the electorate) gives a mandate, as through acclamation or election

Individual heads of state may acquire their position in a number of constitutional ways:

  • The position of a Monarch is usually hereditary, but often with constitutional restrictions, or even considerable liberty for the incumbent or some body convening after his demise to chose from eligible members of the ruling house, often limited to legal descendants of the state religion or even parliamentary permission.
  • Election usually is the constitutional way to choose the head of state of a republic, and some monarchies, either:
    • directly: through popular election; this can be made a fiction under the formula of popular acclamation; the electorate can be very selective, such as the patrician families and/or the professional corporations of a city state, or by the warriors in the case of a 'tribal' type war chief or a Roman general proclaimed by his legions.
    • indirectly: by members of the legislature or of a special college of electors, as in the United States
    • as an exclusive prerogative: the heads of states of the constitutive monarchies of a federation choose the head of state for the federation as a whole from among themselves, as in two modern federations: the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. The Pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church (as such the 'Holy See' is diplomatically recognised) and also monarchic head of state of Vatican City, is chosen by cardinals (appointed by previous Popes) under 80 years of age (in practice from among themselves) in a papal conclave.
  • a head of state can be entitled to designate his successor, such as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell (succeeded by his son Richard)

A head of state may however seize power by force or revolution. This is not to be confused with the notion of an authoritarian or other totalitarian ruler, which rather concerns the oppressive nature of power once acquired, and therefore applies only if he is the true chief executive. Dictators often use democratic titles, though some proclaim themselves monarchs. Examples of the latter include Emperor Napoleon III of France and King Zog of Albania; in Spain, general Francisco Franco adopted the formal title Jefe del Estado, or Chief of State, and established himself as regent for a vacant monarchy. Uganda's Idi Amin was one of several who made themselves President for Life, and even later adopted an additional monarchic title.

Another type of extra-constitutional imposition, often also changing the constitution, is by a foreign power (state or alliance), either benign or, more often, rather for its own interest, such as establishing a branch of their own or a friendly dynasty.

Apart from violent ousting, a head of state's position can also be lost in several ways:

  • death (by natural causes, attentate, execution, on the battlefield or other), even in case of an unlawful killing
  • expiration of the term of office under various (nearly always republican and/or elective) constitutions
  • abdication or resignation, which is legally a voluntary act (though it can be the result of overpowering political or other pressure); in some cases, an abdication cannot occur unilaterally, but comes into effect only when approved by an act of parliament (e.g. British King Edward VIII)
  • abolition of the post by constitutional change of the institutions (occasionally on the contrary, a transitory clause provides the last incumbent may end his term) or even ending the existence of the state as such
  • while generally a head of state enjoys the widest form of inviolability, in some states the exceptions to this includes impeachment, or a similar constitutional procedure by which the highest legislative and/or judicial authorities are empowered to revoke his mandate on exceptional grounds: this may be a common crime, a political sin, an act by which he violates such provisions as the established religion (which is mandatory for the monarch)
  • by similar procedure his original mandate may be declared invalid
  • a referendum, either provided in the constitution or simply considered the sovereign will of the people
  • if the state does not enjoy full and true sovereignty, he may be validly discarded by a protector or suzerain liege
  • serious violation of certain fundamental treaty obligations is sometimes considered a (disputable) valid reason for the relevant international community to depose a head of state, as the Security Council of the UN or certain alliances may do
  • formal declaration of incapacity to rule, usually on such medical grounds as insanity or coma; this may either result in suspension (see below) or termination of his mandate

All ways of ending a head of state's term may carry a risk for the next incumbent, usually by contesting the validity of the procedure, but sometimes even after death in the case of pretenders.

Former heads of state[edit | edit source]

Puyi, the last emperor of China, abdicated from the throne in 1912 (and was briefly restored in 1917), but was allowed to keep his titles and palace until 1924. He worked as a gardener in his later life as an ordinary Chinese citizen in Communist China.

A monarch may retain his style and certain prerogatives after abdication, as King Leopold III of Belgium who left the throne to his son after winning (but not in both linguistic communities of the country) a referendum; he retained a full royal household but no constitutional or representative role at all. In the case of Napoleon I Bonaparte, the Italian principality of Elba, chosen for his luxurious imprisonment after the remains of his Grande Armée (following the disastrous Russian campaign) had finally been defeated in 1814, was transformed into a miniature version of his First Empire, with most trappings of a sovereign monarchy, until his Cent Jours ('100 days' escape and reseizure of power in France) convinced the allies, reconvening the Vienna Congress in 1815, to revoke those gratuitous privileges and send him to die in exile on barren Saint Helena.

By tradition a deposed monarch who has not freely abdicated, though no longer head of state, is allowed to use their monarchical title as a courtesy title for their lifetime. Hence, though he ceased to be Greek king in 1973 (in a disputed referendum during the Regime of the Colonels), or in 1974 (in a referendum after the reestablishment of democracy), it is still standard to refer to the deposed king as Constantine II of Greece. However none of his descendants will be entitled to be called King of the Hellenes (not King of Greece) after his death. Some states dispute the international acceptance of the right of their deposed monarchs to be referred to by their former title. It remains however the generally accepted formula, with most states declining to get involved in disputes between governments and deposed monarchs and simply stating that they are doing no more than recognising tradition, not supporting claims to a defunct throne. Other states have no problem with deposed monarchs being so referred to by former title, and even allow them to travel internationally on the state's diplomatic passport.

Statistics[edit | edit source]

Current[edit | edit source]

(as in early 2011)

  • World's longest serving current monarchical head of state: King Rama IX of Thailand (since 9 June 1946: (&&&&&&&&&&&&&075.&&&&&075 years, &&&&&&&&&&&&&014.&&&&&014 days)).
  • World's longest serving current republican head of state: Leader and Guide of the Revolution Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya (since 1 September 1969: (&&&&&&&&&&&&&051.&&&&&051 years, &&&&&&&&&&&&0295.&&&&&0295 days)).

History[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ "The Crown in Canada" (PDF). Department of Canadian Heritage. http://www.pch.gc.ca/special/royalvisit/ENGLISH.pdf. Retrieved 2008-05-21. 
  2. ^ Buckingham Palace: The Queen and Commonwealth: Canada: The Queen's role in Canada
  3. ^ Alston, Philip (1995). Treaty-making and Australia: globalisation versus sovereignty?. Annandale: Federation Press. p. 254. ISBN 9781862871953. http://books.google.ca/books?id=4_HQYFoPCewC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  4. ^ Bayefsky, Anne F. (1993), "International Human Rights Law in Canadian Courts", in Kaplan, William; McRae, Donald Malcolm; Cohen, Maxwell, Law, policy and international justice: essays in honour of Maxwell Cohen, Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press, p. 112, ISBN 9780773511149, http://books.google.ca/books?id=_7XwU1EvIsAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false, retrieved 16 January 2011 
  5. ^ Flemming, Brian (1965). "Canadian Practice in International Law". The Canadian Yearbook of International Law III. Retrieved on 16 January 2011. 
  6. ^ a b George VI (1 October 1947), Letters Patent Constituting the Office of Governor General of Canada, I, Ottawa: King's Printer for Canada, http://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Canada/English/LettersPatent.html, retrieved 29 May 2009 
  7. ^ Office of the Governor General of Canada. "The Governor General - the evolution of Canada's oldest public institution". Queen's Printer for Canada. http://archive.gg.ca/gg/fgg/bios/03/02e_e.asp. Retrieved 16 January 2011. 
  8. ^ Constitution Act, 1867

Sources, references and external links[edit | edit source]

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