Head of government

The head of government is the highest or the second-highest official in the executive branch of a sovereign state, a federated state, or a self-governing colony, autonomous region, or other government who often presides over a cabinet, a group of ministers or secretaries who lead executive departments. In diplomacy, "head of government" is differentiated from "head of state"[1][2][3][4] although in some countries, for example the United States, they are the same person.

The authority of a head of government, such as a president, chancellor, or prime minister and the relationship between that position and other state institutions, such as the relation between the head of state and of the legislature, varies greatly among sovereign states, depending largely on the particular system of the government that has been chosen, won, or evolved over time.

In most parliamentary systems, including constitutional monarchies, the head of government is the de facto political leader of the government, and is answerable to at least one chamber of the legislature. Although there is often a formal reporting relationship to a head of state, the latter usually acts as a figurehead who may take the role of chief executive on limited occasions, either when receiving constitutional advice from the head of government or under specific provisions in a constitution.[5]

In presidential republics or in absolute monarchies, the head of state is also usually the head of government.[6] The relationship between that leader and the government, however, can vary greatly, ranging from separation of powers to autocracy, according to the constitution (or other basic laws) of the particular state.

In semi-presidential systems, the head of government may answer to both the head of state and the legislature with the specifics provided by each country's constitution.[7] A modern example is the present French government, which originated as the French Fifth Republic in 1958. In France, the president, the head of state, appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government. However, the president must choose someone who can act effectively as an executive, but who also enjoys the support of France's legislature, the National Assembly, to be able to pass legislation. In some cases, the head of state may represent one political party but the majority in the National Assembly is of a different party. Given that the majority party has greater control over state funding and primary legislation, the president is in effect forced to choose a prime minister from the opposition party to ensure an effective, functioning legislature. In this case, known as cohabitation, the prime minister, along with the cabinet, controls domestic policy, with the president's influence largely restricted to foreign affairs.

In communist states, the General Secretary of the Communist Party is the supreme leader, serving as de facto head of state and government. In China, the de jure head of government is the Premier. The Chinese President is legally a ceremonial office, but the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (top leader in a one-party system) has always held this office since 1993 except for the months of transition.[8][9]

In directorial systems, the executive responsibilities of the head of government are spread among a group of people. A prominent example is the Swiss Federal Council, where each member of the council heads a department and also votes on proposals relating to all departments.

Titles of respective heads of government

The most common title for a head of government is Prime Minister. This is used as a formal title in many states, but may also be an informal generic term to refer to whichever office is considered the principal minister under an otherwise styled head of state, as minister Latin for servants or subordinates — is a common title for members of a government (but many other titles are in use, e.g. chancellor and secretary of state). Formally the head of state can also be the head of government as well (ex officio or by ad hoc cumulation, such as a ruling monarch exercising all powers himself) but otherwise has formal precedence over the head of government and other ministers, whether he is their actual political superior (ruling monarch, executive president) or rather theoretical or ceremonial in character (constitutional monarch, non-executive president). Various constitutions use different titles, and even the same title can have various multiple meanings, depending on the constitutional order and political system of the state in question.

As political chief

In addition to prime minister, titles used for the democratic model, where there is an elected legislative body checking the head of government, include the following. Some of these titles relate to governments below the national level (e.g. states or provinces).

Alternative English terms and renderings

Equivalent titles in other languages

Under a dominant head of state

In a broader sense, a head of government can be used loosely when referring to various comparable positions under a dominant head of state (especially is the case of ancient or feudal eras, so the term "head of government", in this case, could be considered a contradiction in terms). In this case, the prime minister serves at the pleasure of the monarch and holds no more power than the monarch allows. Some such titles are diwan, mahamantri, pradhan, wasir or vizier.

However, just because the head of state is the de jure dominant position does not mean that he/she will not always be the de facto political leader. A skilled head of government like 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia and later Chancellor of Germany under Emperor/King Wilhelm I, serves as an example showing that possession of formal powers does not equal political influence.

Indirectly referred as the head of state

In some cases, the head of state is a figurehead whilst the head of the government leads the ruling party. In some cases a head of government may even pass on the title in hereditary fashion. Such titles include the following:

Combined heads of state and government

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and President Christina Kirchner of Argentina in 2015.

In some models the head of state and head of government are one and the same. These include:

An alternative formula is a single chief political body (e.g., presidium) which collectively leads the government and provides (e.g. by turns) the ceremonial Head of state. The only state in which this system is currently employed is Switzerland but other countries such as Uruguay have employed it in the past. This system is described as the directorial system.

See Head of state for further explanation of these cases.

Parliamentary heads of government

The heads of government of five members of the Commonwealth of Nations at the 1944 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. From left to right, Mackenzie King (Canada), Jan Smuts (South Africa), Winston Churchill (United Kingdom), Peter Fraser (New Zealand), and John Curtin (Australia).

In parliamentary systems, government functions along the following lines:

  • The head of government — usually the leader of the majority party or coalition — forms the government, which is answerable to parliament;
  • Full answerability of government to parliament is achieved through
    • The ability of parliament to pass a vote of no confidence.
    • The ability to vote down legislative proposals of the government.
    • Control over or ability to vote down fiscal measures and the budget (or supply); a government is powerless without control of the state finances. In a bicameral system, it is often the so-called lower house (e.g. the British House of Commons) that exercises the major elements of control and oversight; however, in some (e.g. Australia, Italy), the government is constitutionally or by convention answerable to both chambers/Houses of Parliament.

All of these requirements directly impact the head of government's role. Consequently, they often play a 'day to day' role in parliament, answering questions and defending the government on the 'floor of the House', while in semi-presidential systems they may not be required to play as much of a role in the functioning of parliament.


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


Heads of government are typically removed from power in a parliamentary system by

  • Resignation, following:
    • Defeat in a general election.
    • Defeat in a leadership vote at their party caucus, to be replaced by another member of the same party.
    • Defeat in a parliamentary vote on a major issue, e.g., loss of supply, loss of confidence. (In such cases, a head of government may seek a parliamentary dissolution from the head of state and attempt to regain support by popular vote.)
  • Dismissal — some constitutions allow a head of state (or their designated representative, as is the case in some Commonwealth countries) to dismiss a head of government, though its use can be controversial, as occurred in 1975 when then Australian Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the Australian Constitutional Crisis.
  • Death — in this case, the deputy head of government typically acts as the head of government until a new head of government is appointed.

First among equals or dominating the cabinet?

Constitutions differ in the range and scope of powers granted to the head of government. Some older constitutions; for example, Australia's 1900 text, and Belgium's 1830 text; do not mention their prime ministerial offices at all, the offices became a de facto political reality without a formal constitutional status. Some constitutions make a Prime Minister primus inter pares (first among equals) and that remains the practical reality for the Prime Minister of Belgium and the Prime Minister of Finland. Other states however, make their head of government 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. In Israel, while the Government is nominally a collegiate body with a primus inter pares role for the Prime Minister, the Israeli Prime Minister is the dominant figure in the executive branch in practice.[12] The Prime Minister of Sweden, under the 1974 Instrument of Government, is a constitutional office with all key executive powers either directly at his or her disposal or indirectly through the collegial Government, whose members are all appointed and dismissed at the Prime Minister's sole discretion.

Under the unwritten British constitution, the prime minister's role has evolved, based often on the individual's personal appeal and strength of character, as contrasted between, for example, Winston Churchill as against Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher as against John Major. It is alleged that the increased personalisation of leadership in a number of states has led to heads of government becoming themselves "semi-presidential" figures, due in part to media coverage of politics that focuses on the leader and his or her mandate, rather than on parliament; and to the increasing centralisation of power in the hands of the head of government. Such allegations have been made against three former British Prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Boris Johnson. They were also made against Italian prime ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Federal Chancellor of West Germany (later all of Germany), Helmut Kohl, when in power.

Official residence

The head of government is often provided with an official residence, often in the same fashion as heads of state often are. The name of the residence is often used as a metonym or alternative title for 'the government' when the office is politically the highest, e.g. in the UK "Downing Street announced today…"

Well-known official residences of heads of government include:

Similarly, heads of government of federal entities below the level of the sovereign state (often without an actual head of state, at least under international law) may also be given an official residence, sometimes used as an opportunity to display aspirations of statehood:

Usually, the residence of the heads of government is not as prestigious and grand as that of the head of state, even if the head of state only performs ceremonial duties. Even the formal representative of the head of state, such as a governor-general, may well be housed in a grander, palace-type residence. However, this is not the case when both positions are combined into one:


See also


  1. Not to be confused with a hotel, as a grand stately house is also called a hôtel in French.



  1. As in article 7 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, article 1 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents and the United Nations protocol list)
  2. HEADS OF STATE, HEADS OF GOVERNMENT, MINISTERS FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS Archived 27 September 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Protocol and Liaison Service, United Nations (19 October 2012). Retrieved 29 July 2013.
  3. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 Archived 17 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine, International Law Commission, United Nations. Retrieved 29 July 2013.
  4. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents 1973 Archived 1 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine, International Law Commission, United Nations. Retrieved 29 July 2013.
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  9. "China's 'Chairman of Everything': Behind Xi Jinping's Many Titles". The New York Times. 25 October 2017. Archived from the original on 26 October 2017. Retrieved 1 December 2019. Mr. Xi's most important title is general secretary, the most powerful position in the Communist Party. In China's one-party system, this ranking gives him virtually unchecked authority over the government.
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  • Jean Blondel & Ferdinand Muller-Rommel Cabinets in Western Europe (ISBN 0-333-46209-2)
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