Prime Minister

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A Prime Minister is a politician who serves as the head of the executive branch of government in a parliamentary system. A Prime Minister can be:

In parliamentary systems like the Westminster system, the prime minister is the head of the elected government while the position of head of state (ie: the King or Queen) is largely ceremonial. The Prime Minister is often a member of parliament and is expected to ensure the passage of bills through the legislature. In some monarchies the prime minister also exercises powers (known as the Royal Prerogative) which are constitutionally vested in the Crown and can be exercised without the approval of parliament.

As well as being Head of Government, a prime minister may have other roles or titles—the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, for example, is also First Lord of the Treasury. Prime ministers may take other ministerial posts—for example during the Second World War Winston Churchill was also Minister of Defence.



The term Prime Minister originated in the 18th century in the United Kingdom. Since medieval times Kings of England and the United Kingdom had ministers in whom they placed special trust and who were regarded as the head of the government. Examples were Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, Robert Cecil under Elizabeth I, Clarendon under Charles II and Godolphin under Queen Anne. These ministers held a variety of formal posts, but were commonly known as "the Minister," the "first Minister" and finally the "Prime Minister."

The power of these ministers depended entirely on the personal favour of the Monarch. Although managing the Parliament was among the necessary skills of holding high office, they did not depend on a parliamentary majority for their power. Although there was a Cabinet, it was appointed entirely by the Monarch, and the Monarch usually presided over its meetings. When the Monarch tired of a first minister, they could be dismissed, or worse: Cromwell was executed and Clarendon driven into exile when they lost favour. Kings sometimes divided power equally between two or more ministers to prevent one minister becoming too powerful. Late in Anne's reign, for example, the Tory ministers Harley and St. John shared power.

The turning point in the evolution of the prime ministership came with the death of Anne in 1714 and the accession of George I. George spoke no English, spent much of his time at his home in Hannover, and had neither knowledge of nor interest in the details of English government. In these circumstances it was inevitable that the King's first minister would become the de facto head of the government. From 1721 this was the Whig politician Robert Walpole, who held office for twenty-one years. Walpole chaired Cabinet meetings, appointed all the other ministers, dispensed the royal patronage and packed the House of Commons with his supporters. Under Walpole, the doctrine of Cabinet solidarity developed. Walpole required that no minister other than him have private dealings with the King, and also that when the Cabinet had agreed on a policy, all ministers must defend it in public or resign. As a later Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, said: "It matters not what we say, gentlemen, so long as we all say the same thing."

Walpole always denied that he was a "Prime Minister," and throughout the 18th century parliamentarians and legal scholars continued to deny that any such position was known to the Constitution. The post did not formally exist until 1905, and until then prime ministers held office by virtue of the formal post of First Lord of the Treasury. George II and George III made strenuous efforts to reclaim the personal power of the Monarch, but the increasing complexity and expense of government meant that a minister who could command the loyalty of the Commons was increasingly necessary. The long tenure of the wartime Prime Minister Pitt the Younger (1783-1801), combined with the mental illness of George III, consolidated the power of the post. By the reign of Queen Victoria it was undisputed that the Prime Minister was real ruler of the country, although his power was always conditional on the support of a majority in the Commons.

The prestige of British institutions in the 19th century and the growth of the British Empire saw the British model of Cabinet government, headed by a Prime Minister, widely copied, both in other European countries and in British colonial territories as they developed self-government. In some places alternative titles such as "Premier," "Chief Minister," "First Minister of State", "President of the Council" or "Chancellor" were adopted, but the essentials of the office were the same. By the late 20th century the majority of the world's countries had a Prime Minister or equivalent minister, holding office under either a constitutional monarchy or a ceremonial president. The main exceptions to this system have been the United States and the presidential republics in Latin America, modelled on the U.S. system, in which the President directly exercises executive authority.

Prime ministers in republics and in monarchies

The post of prime minister is one which may be encountered both in constitutional monarchies (such as Belgium, Denmark, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom), and in republics in which the head of state is an elected (such as France and Finland) or unelected official (such as Germany) with varying degrees of real power. This contrasts with the presidential system, in which the President (or equivalent) is both the head of state and the head of the government. See also "First Minister" , "Premier", "Chief Minister" "Chancellor" and "Taoiseach": alternative titles usually equivalent in meaning to "prime minister."

In some presidential or semi-presidential systems such as those of France, Russia, South Korea, or Taiwan the prime minister is an official generally appointed by the President but approved by the legislature and responsible for carrying out the directives of the President and managing the civil service. In these systems, it is possible for the president and the prime minister to be from different political parties if the legislature is controlled by a party different from that of the president. When it arises, such a state of affairs is usually referred to as (political) cohabitation.

Entry into office

In parliamentary systems a prime minister can enter into office by a number of means.

  • By appointment by the Head of State, without reference to parliament: In most Westminster systems (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand ,India and the United Kingdom) the appointment of the Prime Minister is a royal prerogative exercised by the Queen or the Governor-General. No parliamentary vote takes place on who is forming a government. However as the government will have to outline its legislative programme to parliament in the Speech from the Throne, the speech is sometimes used to test parliamentary support. A defeat on the Speech is taken to mean a Loss of Confidence and so requires either a new draft (a humiliating act no government would contemplate), resignation, or a request for a dissolution of parliament. Until the early 20th century governments when defeated in a general election remained in power until their Speech from the Throne was defeated and then resigned. No government has done so for one hundred years, though Edward Heath in 1974 did delay his resignation while he explored whether he could form a government with Liberal support.
In such systems unwritten (and unenforceable) constitutional conventions often outline the order in which people are asked to form a government. If the Prime Minister resigns after a general election, the monarch usually asks the Leader of the Opposition to form a government. Where however a resignation occurs during a parliament (unless the government has itself collapsed) the monarch will ask another member of the government to form a government. While previously the monarch had some leeway in whom to ask, all British political parties now elect their leaders (until 1965 the Conservatives chose their leader by informal consultation). The last time the monarch had a choice over the appointment occurred in 1963 when the Earl of Home was asked to become Prime Minister ahead of Rab Butler.
  • Appointment by the head of state after parliament nominates a candidate; Example: The Republic of Ireland where the President of Ireland appoints the Taoiseach on the nomination of the Dáil Éireann.)
  • The head of state nominates a candidate for prime minister who is then submitted to parliament for approval before appointment as prime minister; Example: Spain, where the King sends a nomination to parliament for approval. Also Germany where under the Basic Law (constitution) the Bundestag votes on a candidate nominated by the Federal President. In these cases, parliament can choose another candidate who then would be appointed by the head of state.)
  • The head of state appoints a prime minister who has a set timescale within which s/he must gain a vote of confidence; (Example: Italy.)
  • Direct election by parliament (the premiers of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut); and the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory
  • Direct election by the public (Example: Israel, 1996-2001.); The prime minister is elected in a general election, with no regard to political affiliation.
  • Appointment by a state office holder other than the head of state or his/her representative; Example: Under the modern Instrument of Government 1974, which came into force in 1975, the power of commissioning someone to form a government was moved from the Monarch of Sweden to the Speaker of Parliament, who, once it has been approved, formally makes the appointment.

Though most prime ministers are 'appointed', they are often inaccurately described as 'elected'.

Prime ministers and constitutions

The position, power and status of prime ministers differ depending on the age of the constitution in individuals.

Australia's Constitution makes no mention of a Prime Minister of Australia.

Britain's constitution, being uncodified and largely unwritten, makes no mention of a Prime Minister. Though it had de facto existed for centuries, its first mention in official state documents did not occur until the first decade of the twentieth century.

Canada's constitution, being a 'mixed' constitution (a constitution that is partly fomally codified and partly uncodified) makes no mention of a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is formally the chief executive of the Privy Council and the cabinet.

Germany's Basic Law (1949) lists the powers, functions and duties of the federal Chancellor.

Ireland's constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937) provided for the office of Taoiseach in detail, listing powers, functions and duties.

Exit from office

Contrary to popular and journalistic belief, most prime ministers in parliamentary systems are not appointed for a specific term of office and in effect may remain in power through a number of elections and parliaments. For example, Margaret Thatcher was only ever appointed prime minister on one occasion, in 1979. She remained continuously in power until 1990, though she used the assembly of each House of Commons after a general election to reshuffle her cabinet. Some states, however, do have a term of office of the prime minister linked to the period in office on the parliament. Hence the Irish Taoiseach is formally 'renominated' after every general election. (Some constitutional experts have questioned whether this process is actually in keeping with the provisions of the Irish constitution, which appear to suggest a taoiseach should remain in office, without the requirement of a renomination, unless s/he has clearly lost the general election.) The position of prime minister is normally chosen from the political party that commands majority of seats in the lower house of parliament.

In parliamentary systems, governments are generally required to have the confidence of the lower house of parliament (though a small minority of parliaments, by giving a right to block Supply to upper houses, in effect make the cabinet responsible to both houses, though in reality upper houses, even when they have the power, rarely exercise it). Where they lose a vote of confidence, have a motion of no confidence passed against them, or where they lose Supply, most constitutional systems require either:

a) a letter of resignation or

b) a request of a parliamentary dissolution.

The latter in effect allows the government to appeal the opposition of parliament to the electorate. However in many jurisdictions a head of state may refuse a parliamentary dissolution, requiring the resignation of the prime minister and his or her government. In most modern parliamentary systems, the prime minister is the person who decides when to request a parliamentary dissolution. Older constitutions often vest this power in the cabinet. (In Britain, for example, the tradition whereby it is the prime minister who requests a dissolution of parliament dates back to 1918. Prior to then, it was the entire government that made the request. Similarly, though the modern 1937 Irish constitution grants to the Taoiseach the right to make the request, the earlier 1922 Irish Free State Constitution vested the power in the Executive Council (the then name for the Irish cabinet).


A number of different terms are used to describe prime ministers. The German prime minister is actually titled Federal Chancellor while the Irish prime minister is called the Taoiseach. In many cases, though commonly used, "prime minister" is not the official title of the office-holder; the Spanish prime minister is the President of the Government (Presidente del Gobierno). Other common forms include President of the Council of Ministers (for example in Italy, Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri), President of the Executive Council, or Minister-President. In federations, the head of government of subnational entities like states or provinces is most commonly known as the Premier, Chief Minister or Minister-president.

Style of a prime minister

The title prime minister is a job title that does not form part of the prime minister's name. It is therefore poor style to refer to “Prime Minister Blair”, just as it would be strange to call someone “Bus Driver Edwards”. The correct form is "Prime Minister Tony Blair" or "Tony Blair, Prime Minister". This mistake is particularly common in the United States, where a high office title is often adopted as if it were a military rank.

The title of prime minister is lost when the officer holder ceases to be prime minister. This is not the case for some comparable positions in the United States, which can cause some confusion. When former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jim Bolger became the Ambassador to the United States, he was referred to as “Prime Minister Bolger”, which was both poor style and factually incorrect.

Commonwealth Realm prime ministers are often Privy Counsellors entitled to the style the right honourable. In the New Zealand Parliament's debating chamber the Prime Minister is referred to as the Right Honourable the Prime Minister, rather than by name.

In non-Commonwealth countries the prime minister may be entitled to the style of Excellency like a President.

Articles on prime ministers

Lists of prime ministers

The following table groups the list of past and present prime ministers and details information available in those lists.

Country List starts Table shows
Term given by
years or dates?
Present Incumbent
Albania1914-yearsSali Berisha
Algeria1962yesyearsAhmed Ouyahia
Angola1975-datesFernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos
Antigua and Barbuda1981-yearsBaldwin Spencer
Armenia1918yesdatesAndranik Markaryan
Australia1901yesdatesJohn Howard
Bahamas1967-datesPerry Christie
Bangladesh1971yesdatesKhaleda Zia
Barbados1954-yearsOwen Arthur
Belgium1918-datesGuy Verhofstadt
Belize1973yesyearsSaid Musa
Bulgaria1879yesdatesSergei Stanishev
Burkina Faso1971-datesParamanga Ernest Yonli
Cambodia1996-yearsHun Sen
Cameroon1960-datesPeter Mafany Musonge
Canada1867yesdatesStephen Harper
Cape Verde1975-datesJosé Maria Neves
Central African Republic1958-datesCélestin Gaombalet
Chad1978-datesPascal Yoadimnadji
China, People's Republic of1949-datesWen Jiabao
Cook Islands1965yesdatesJim Marurai
Croatia1990-datesIvo Sanader
Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia1969-yearsJiří Paroubek
Denmark1848-yearsAnders Fogh Rasmussen
Djibouti1977-datesDileita Mohamed Dileita
Dominica1960-datesRoosevelt Skerrit
Egypt1878-yearsAhmed Nazif
Equatorial Guinea1963-datesMiguel Abia Biteo Borico
Estonia1991-datesAndrus Ansip
Fiji1966-datesLaisenia Qarase
Finland1917yesyearsMatti Vanhanen
France1815-yearsDominique de Villepin
Georgia1918yesdatesZurab Nogaideli
Greece1833-datesKostas Karamanlis
Greenland1979-yearsHans Enoksen
Grenada1954-yearsKeith Mitchell
Guinea1972-datesFrançois Lonseny Fall
Guyana1953-datesSam Hinds
Hungary1848-datesFerenc Gyurcsány
Iceland1904-datesHalldór Ásgrímsson
India1947yesdatesManmohan Singh
Iran1824-yearsMir-Hossein Mousavi till 1989
Iraq1920-yearsIyad Allawi
Ireland1937yesdatesBertie Ahern
Israel1948-yearsAriel Sharon
Italy1861-yearsSilvio Berlusconi
Jamaica1959-yearsPercival Patterson
Japan1885-yearsJunichiro Koizumi
Jordan1944-datesMarouf al-Bakhit
Korea, North1948n/ayearsPak Pong Ju
Korea, South1948-yearsLee Hai-chan
Latvia1990yesdatesIndulis Emsis
Lebanon1926-datesNajib Mikati
Lithuania1990yesdatesAlgirdas Mykolas Brazauskas
Luxembourg1959-yearsJean-Claude Juncker
Malaysia1957yesyearsAbdullah Ahmad Badawi
Malta1921yesyearsLawrence Gonzi
Mongolia1912yesdatesTsakhiagiyn Elbegdorj
Myanmar (Burma)1948yesdatesSoe Win
Nepal1953-datesSher Bahadur Deuba
Netherlands1945yesdatesJan Peter Balkenende
Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles1954yesyearsEtienne Ys
New Zealand1856yesdatesHelen Clark
Newfoundland1855yesdates(Post Abolished)
Norway1814-yearsJens Stoltenberg
Pakistan1947-datesShaukat Aziz
Palestine2003-unknownAhmad Qurei
Peru1975yesdatesPedro Pablo Kuczynski
Papua New Guinea1975-yearsMichael Somare
Poland1917-datesKazimierz Marcinkiewicz
Portugal1834yesdatesJosé Sócrates
Romania1862-yearsCălin Popescu-Tăriceanu
Russia1991yesdatesMikhail Fradkov
Saint Kitts and Nevis1960-datesDenzil Douglas
Saint Lucia1960-datesKenny Anthony
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines1956-datesRalph Gonsalves
São Tomé and Principe1974yesdatesDamiao Vaz d'Almeida
Serbia1805-yearsVojislav Koštunica
Singapore1965-datesLee Hsien Loong
Slovakia1918-datesMikuláš Dzurinda
Slovenia1990yesyearsJanez Janša
South Africa1910-dates(Post Abolished)
Spain1902yesyearsJosé Luis Rodríguez Zapatero
Sri Lanka1948-datesMahinda Rajapakse
Sweden1876yesyearsGöran Persson
Taiwan (ROC)1911-datesSu Tseng-chang
Thailand1932-yearsThaksin Shinawatra
Tonga1876-yearsFeleti Sevele
Trinidad and Tobago1956-datesPatrick Manning
Turkey1920yesdatesRecep Tayyip Erdoğan
Tuvalu1975n/adatesSaufatu Sopoanga
Ukraine1990-datesYuriy Yehanurov
United Arab Emirates1971-yearsMaktoum Bin Rashid al-Maktoum
United Kingdom1721yesdatesTony Blair
Uzbekistan1995-datesShavkat Mirziyayev
Vanuatu1980yesdatesSerge Vohor
Vietnam1976yesdatesPhan Van Khai
Yemen1990yesyearsAbdul Qadir Bajamal

See also

External links

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