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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 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. 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;
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
o the ability of parliament to vote no confidence;
o the requirement that the government gain and hold Supply;
o 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
Removing a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary System
Prime Ministers typically exit power in a parliamentary system by
* resignation, following
o defeat in a general election
o defeat in a parliamentary vote on a major issue (Loss of Supply,
Loss of Confidence, defeat in a major parliamentary vote on an
Alternatively a prime minister, if so defeated, may seek a parliamentary
dissolution from the head of state.
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 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.