Head of government is a generic term used for either the highest or second highest official in the executive branch of a sovereign state , a federated state , or a self-governing colony who most often presides over a cabinet . The term "head of government" is most often used differentiating it from the term " head of state ", e.g. 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] [3] [4] The authority of a head of government, and the relationship between that position and additional state institutions (such as a head of state and legislature ) varies greatly among sovereign states, depending largely on the particular constitutional model chosen.

Titles of respective heads of government

A common title for a large number of heads of government is prime minister . This is used as a formal title in a large number of states, but additionally informally a generic term to describe 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 a large number of additional titles are in use, e.g. chancellor and secretary of state ). Formally the head of state can additionally be the head of government as well ( ex officio or by ad hoc cumulation, like a ruling monarch exercising all powers himself) but otherwise has formal precedence over the Head of Government and additional ministers, whether he's 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's 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 and renderings

Equivalent titles in additional 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, can 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 doesn't mean that he/she won't 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 doesn't equal political influence.

Indirectly referred as the head of state

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

Combined heads of state and government

In a few 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 — most of the time 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 most often the so-called lower house , e.g. the British House of Commons that exercises the major elements of control and oversight; in a few 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 most 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 might not be required to play as much of a role in the functioning of parliament.


In a large number of 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 a few additional 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 fitting 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 might seek a parliamentary dissolution from the Head of state and attempt to regain support by popular vote.)
  • Dismissal — a few constitutions allow a Head of state (or their designated representative, as is the case in a few 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 ; don't 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 additional countries where this is a cabinet decision, with the Prime Minister just one member voting on the suggestion. The Prime Minister of Sweden , under the 1974 Instrument of Government , is a constitutional office with all key executive powers at his disposal; either directly, 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 most 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 fitting themselves "semi-presidential" figures, due in part to media coverage of politics that focuses on the leader and their 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 two recent British Prime ministers; Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair . They were additionally made against 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 most often provided with an official residence , most often in the same fashion as heads of state most often are. The name of the residence is most 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) might additionally be given an official residence, at times used as an opportunity to display its aspirations of statehood. For example, in Belgium:

However, Heads of governments' residences are most of the time 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, like a governor-general , might well be housed in a grander palace-type residence, most often with such names as Government House.



(as of mid-2011)