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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 presidental systems or , 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-presidental 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.

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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. Titles used include

  • Head of the Government;
  • President of the Cabinet;
  • President of the Executive Council;
  • President of the Council of Ministers;
  • President of the Council of State;
  • Taoiseach.

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 vote no confidence;
    • the requirement that the government gain and hold Supply;
    • answerability for its actions to whichever house (almost invariably the democratically elected upper 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 a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary System

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 (democratically elected) house. Many parliamentary systems require ministers to serve in parliament, while others ban ministers from sitting in parliament, they resigning on becoming ministers.

Removing a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary System

Prime Ministers typically exit power in a parliamentary system by

  • resignation, following
    • defeat in a general election
    • defeat in a parliamentary vote on a major issue (Loss of Supply, Loss of Confidence[?], defeat in a major parliamentary vote on an important Bill.

Alternatively a prime minister, if so defeated, may seek a parliamentary dissolution from the head of state.

  • dismissal
Some constitutions allow a head of state or a governor-general[?] to dismiss a prime minister, though its use can be controversial, as occurred in 1975 when then Australian Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed prime minister Gough Whitlam (an unprecedented act) over Whitlam's failure to gain Supply in the upper house (a legal requirement but which the Senate by convention did not insist on), and his resulting decision not to resign or seek a dissolution.

First Among Equals or Dominating the Cabinet?

Constitutions differ in how many powers they give to prime ministership; indeed some older constitutions (Australia's 1900 text, Belgium's 1830 text) never mentioned the office of prime minister at all, the office becoming a de facto reality without a 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 (the Irish language word, meaning 'The Leader', which is translated as 'prime minister') 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 Britain's unwritten 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 Atlee, 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.

See also: History of Parliamentarism

Additional Reading

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

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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