Head of government

Head of government
The heads of government of five members of the Commonwealth of Nations at the 1944 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

Head of government is the chief officer of the executive branch of a government, often presiding over a cabinet. In a parliamentary system, the head of government is often styled prime minister, chief minister, premier, etc. In presidential republics or absolute monarchies, the head of government may be the same person as the head of state, who is often called respectively a president or a monarch.

In semi-presidential systems, the Head of Government may answer to both the Head of State and the legislative power (such as parliament). An example is the French Fifth Republic (1958–present), where the Président de la République appoints a Prime Minister but must choose someone who can get government business through, and has the support of, the National Assembly. When the opposition controls the National Assembly (and thus government funding and most legislation), the President is in effect forced to choose a Prime Minister from the opposition; in such cases, known as cohabitation, the government controls internal state policy, with the President restricted largely to foreign affairs.


Titles of the head of the government

The most common title for a head of government is "Prime Minister."[citation needed] This is used as a formal title in many states, but also informally a generic term to describe whichever office is formally the first amongst the executive "ministers" of 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. secretary (of state)).

Formally the "head of state" can also personally be the "head of government" (ex officio or by ad hoc cumulation such as an absolute monarch nominating himself) but otherwise has formal precedence over the Head of Government and other ministers, whether he is their actual political superior (absolute monarch, executive president) or rather theoretical or ceremonial in character. Various constitutions use different titles, and even the same title can have various political meanings depending on the constitution 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)

Alternate English terms & renderings

Equivalent titles in other languages

  • Bundeskanzler/Chancellor (German)
  • In Malaysia, the head of government of the constituent states are expressed in the Malay language (either Ketua Menteri, "chief minister" in the Malaysian states without a monarchy (Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak), or Menteri Besar "great minister" in the sultanates and other monarchic states).
  • Lehendakari (Basque Country)
  • Leitender Minister (German, literally 'directing minister')
  • Pääministeri (Finnish)
  • Statsminister (Scandinavian)
  • Taoiseach (Irish)

Under a dominant head of state

In a broader sense, a prime minister can be used loosely to refer to various comparable positions under a Head of State that is an absolute monarch (especially is the case of ancient or feudal eras, so the term "prime minister", in this case, could be considered an anachronism). In this case, the prime minister serves at the pleasure of the monarch and holds no more power than the monarch allows. In some cases a disgraced head of government has even been executed for his failure. Some such titles are:

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:

Heads of state and government

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 See Head of State for further explanation of these cases.

Parliamentary heads of government

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; in some others, e.g. Australia and 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 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 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 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 Constitution of the United Kingdom, 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 prime ministers 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 Prime minister. Such allegations have been made against two recent British Prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. They were also made against Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and 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, in the same way as Heads of state often are. The name of the residence is often used as a metonym or alternate 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:

Fuller list in the official residence article.

Similarly the Heads of government of (con)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 its aspirations of statehood. E.g. in Belgium:

However, Heads of governments' residences are usually far less grand than those (often called palace) of a Head of state (even a merely ceremonial one), unless they combine both roles, as for example:

Even the formal representative of the Head of State, such as a Governor-General, may well be housed in a grander palace-type residence, often with such names as Government House.


  • Main article: Records of heads of government


(as in mid 2011)

See also

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Sources and References

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