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Head of state
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Head of state

A head of state is the chief public representative of a nation-state, federation or commonwealth, whose role generally includes personifying the continuity and legitimacy of the state and exercising powers, functions and duties granted to the head of state in the country's constitution. In Charles de Gaulle's words, describing the role he envisaged for the French president when he wrote the modern French constitution, a head of state should embody "the spirit of the nation" to the nation itself and to the world: une certaine idée de la France.

In a monarchy, the monarch is the head of state. In a republic, the head of state is usually called the president, although some leaders have assumed other titles (some have simply used 'Head of State' as their only formal title).

Table of contents
1 The head of state and the government
2 Roles of the head of state
3 Symbolic role
4 Selection of heads of state
5 Official residences
6 See also

The head of state and the government

signs a bill into law at a public ceremony. As Head of State, the President's signature is required on all laws absent a super-majority of congress.]]

In Presidential systems, and in absolute monarchies, the head of state is normally not merely head of state but also the active head of government. Examples of this in republics are United States and many South American nations. Other examples are Saudi Arabia and Vatican City, which are both absolute monarchies.

In parliamentary systems the head of state may be merely the nominal chief executive officer of the state, while in reality powers are usually exercised by a cabinet, presided over by a prime minister who is answerable to parliament. However, exceptions exist even to this; for instance, in some times of exceptional crisis during the 20th century (typically German invasions), the then King of the Belgians has exercised his role as chief executive officer directly; this shows that such a direct capacity had and may still have a latent existence there, and so possibly elsewhere as well. Most recently, Liechtenstein gave its Prince unprecedented constitutional powers in 2003, including a veto over legislation, and power to dismiss the cabinet at whim.

In some semi-presidential systems, a president may be an active player in government, with the cabinet answerable in practice both to the head of state and parliament. The most striking example is the current Fifth French Republic. In the French case, in those circumstances in which parliament is controlled by the party which the president belongs to, the president is usually the dominant political player in government. When, however, the 'opposition' to the president control parliament, given that the government is answerable to parliament, the president has little choice but to share power with an 'opposition' prime minister. When this occurs, it is called cohabitation. In France this has developed into the constitutional convention that the prime minister controls the internal policy agenda, with the president limiting his role to foreign affairs, subject to the cabinet.

Roles of the head of state

- The seven-member collective Head of State of Switzerland''(also depicted: Federal Chancellor)]]

Chief diplomatic officer

Example: under the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (constitution), Article 59 (1) states -
The Federal President shall represent the Federation in its international relations. He shall conclude treaties with foreign states on behalf of the Federation. He shall accredit and receive envoys.

Chief executive officer

receives the Letters of Credence from the French ambassador.]]

In the vast majority of states, whether republics or monarchies, executive authority is vested, at least notionally, in the head of state. In presidential systems the head of state is the actual, de facto chief executive officer. Under parliamentary systems the executive authority is theoretically exercised by the head of state but in practice exercised on the advice of the prime minister or cabinet. This produces such terms as Her Majesty's Government and His Excellency's Government. Examples of parliamentary systems in which the head of state is notional chief executive include Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The few exceptions include the Republic of Ireland, where executive authority is explicitly vested in the cabinet, and Sweden. The head of state may also be described, although, again, in parliamentary systems this is only a notional designation, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Example 1 (presidential system): Article 2, Section 1 of the United States Constitution states:
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.

Example 2 (Victorian era constitutional monarchy): Under Chapter II, Section 61 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900:
The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

Example 3 (mid-20th century constitutional monarchy): According to Section 12 of the Constitution of Denmark 1953:
Subject to the limitations laid down in this Constitution Act the King shall have the supreme authority in all the affairs of the Realm, and he shall exercise such supreme authority through the Ministers.

Example 4 (modern republican parliamentary system): According to Article 26 (2) of the 1975 Constitution of Greece:
The executive power shall be exercised by the President of the Republic and by the government.

Chief appointments officer

- ''Head of State of the Kingdom of Belgium]]

Example: Article 13.1.1 of the Constitution of Ireland:
The President shall, on the nomination of Dáil Éireann [the lower house], appoint the Taoiseach [prime minister].

Signing bills into law

Most states require that all
billss passed by the house or houses of the legislature are signed into law by the head of state. In some states, such as the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the head of state is in fact formally considered a tier of parliament. In presidential systems the head of state often has power to veto a bill. In most parliamentary systems, however, the head of state cannot refuse to sign a bill, but may, in granting a bill their assent, nevertheless indicate that it was passed in accordance with the correct procedures. The signing of a bill into law is formally known as promulgation. Some Commonwealth of Nations states call this procedure granting the Royal Assent.
Example 1 (presidential system): Article 1, Section 7 of the United States Constitution states:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States.
Example 2 (parliamentary system): Section 11.a.1. of the Basic Laws of Israel states:
The President of the State shall sign every Law, other than a Law relating to its powers.

In some parliamentary systems the head of state retains certain powers, in relation to bills, that they may exercise at their discretion. They may have authority to:

Summoning and dissolving the legislature

Example: Article 13.2.2. of the Constitution of Ireland states:
The President may in absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dáil Éireann on the advice of a Taoiseach [prime minister] who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann

Symbolic role

, President of Serbia at official inauguration]]

As the above quote by Charles de Gaulle indicates, one of the most important roles of the modern head of state is being a symbolic national symbol of the nation.

In most countries portraits of the head of state can be found in government offices, airports, libraries, and other buildings of the sort. The idea is to use these portraits to make the public aware of the symbolic connection to the government, a practice that dates back to mediaeval times. Sometimes this practice is taken to excess, and the head of state begins to believe that he is the only symbol of the nation. A personality cult thus ensues, where the image of the head of state is the only visual representation of the country, surpassing other symbols such as the flag, constitution, founding fathers, etc.

In diplomatic affairs, heads of state are often the first person to greet an important foreign visitor. They may also assume a sort of informal "host" role during the VIP's visit, inviting the vistor to a state dinner at his or her mansion or palace, or some other equally hospitable affair.

Selection of heads of state

, with Prince Philip, hanging in a Canadian courthouse. Queen Elizabeth is a multiple head of state, and is Queen of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, and eleven other states (1952-present)]]

A heads of state may acquire their position in a number of ways:


In some cases, where one person holds multiple headships of state, they may be represented by a governor-general. Examples are Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, resides in another of her kingdoms, the United Kingdom, and so is represented by a governor-general. Nations outside of the UK that recognise Elizabeth II as their queen are known as Commonwealth Realms, and maintain ties to the monarchy as a recognition of their colonial history.

The governor-general may fulfill many of the roles of a head of state, but is not legally the head of state, rather an appointed representative of the head of state that may act in her place in her absence from the state. A governor-general may be considered de facto head of state as the monarch rarely exercises the reserve powers of the crown. See, for example, the Queen of Canada.


Official residences

Every head of state is provided with a state residence or residences, often called a 'palace'. Among the most famous such residences are:

See also: List of official residences

See also