Head of government

The head of government is the leader of the government or cabinet.

  • In a parliamentary system, the head of government is known as a premier or prime minister.
  • In presidential systems, the head of government may be the same person as the head of state which is usually titled president in a republic.
  • In some semi-presidential systems, the head of government is a separate premier or prime minister who is answerable to the president or an absolute or semi-absolute monarch rather than to parliament. In others, the prime minister may be answerable to both the head of state and parliament. Such is the case in the French Fifth Republic (1958-present), the President appoints a prime minister but must choose someone who can get government business through the National Assembly. Where the opposition controls the National Assembly, the President is in effect forced to choose a prime minister from among the opposition. In such occasions, known as cohabitation, an opposition-orientated government controls internal state policy, with the President restricting himself largely to foreign affairs, though there too he must work with the government.

Different titles of Head of government

The title Prime Minister is often used to describe the head of government, though often constitutions use different titles. In addition to Prime Minister and President, titles used include:

A parliamentary prime minister

In parliamentary systems, government functions along the following lines:

  • The formation of a government answerable to parliament by a member (sometimes the leader) of the party or parties;
  • Full answerability of that government to parliament through
    • The ability of parliament to pass a vote of no confidence.
    • The requirement that the government gain and hold supply.
    • Answerability for its actions to whichever house (almost invariably the lower house) controls 'supply'.

All of these directly impact on the prime ministerial role, often requiring that the Prime Minister play a 'day to day' role on the floor of the House, answering questions and defending 'his' government on the 'floor of the House'. In contrast, prime ministers in semi-presidential systems may be required to play less of a role in the functioning of parliament.

Appointing the prime minister

In some states, a head of government is elected by parliament. In many, they are commissioned to form a government by the head of state, on the basis of the strength of party support in the lower house. Many parliamentary systems require ministers to serve in parliament, while others ban ministers from sitting in parliament, they resigning on becoming ministers.

Removing the prime minister

Prime ministers are typically removed from power in a parliamentary system by

  • Resignation, following:
    • Defeat in a general election
    • Defeat in a parliamentary vote on a major issue. Eg. loss of supply, loss of confidence, or defeat on a major parliamentary vote on an important bill (alternatively a prime minister, if so defeated, may usually seek a parliamentary dissolution from the head of state).

First among equals or dominating the cabinet?

Constitutions differ in how many powers they give to prime ministership; indeed some older constitutions (for example, Australia's 1900 text, and Belgium's 1830 text) never mentioned the office of prime minister at all, the office becoming a de facto reality without formal constitutional status. Some constitutions make a prime minister primus inter pares (first among equals) and that remains the practical reality in places like Finland and Belgium. Other states however, make their prime minister a central and dominant figure within the cabinet system; Ireland's Taoiseach, for example, alone can decide when to seek a parliamentary dissolution, in contrast to other countries where this is a cabinet decision, with the Prime Minister just one member voting on the suggestion. Under the UK's constitution, the Prime Minister's role has evolved, based often on the personal appeal and strength of character, as contrasted between, for example, Winston Churchill as against Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher as against John Major.

In a number of states the allegation has been made that the increased personalisation of leadership, a product in part on media coverage of politics that focuses on the leader and his or her mandate, rather than on parliament, and also on the increasing centralisation of power in the hands of the prime minister, has led to accusations of prime ministers becoming themselves semi-presidential figures. Such allegations have been made against two recent British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. It was made against then Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and against the then Chancellor of West Germany and later Germany Helmut Kohl.

Official residence

In systems where the head of government possesses a large amount of power, he or she may be provided with an official residence, as with a head of state. Some official residences of heads of government include:

Further reading

  • Jean Blondel & Ferdinand Muller-Rommel Cabinets in Western Europe (ISBN 0333462092)

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