Tag Archives: head of state

Spain’s New King

King Felipe VI called for a “new Spain that we will build together” at a ceremony marking his proclamation as head of state. Under Spain’s constitutional monarchy, Filipe serves as the ceremonial head of state, while the Prime Minister, currently Mario Rajoy Brey, is selected by the Spanish parliament to be head of government.

Spain’s previous King, Juan Carlos I, held the office from 1975 until he abdicated the position on June 2. While the position is largely ceremonial in nature, Juan Carlos’ reign suffered from several scandals in recent years, most notably in 2012, when he was criticized for taking a lavish elephant hunting trip in Botswana while Spain’s economic crisis mounted. A Spanish newspaper estimated the cost of the trip at more than $44,000, about twice the average annual salary in the country. At that time, Spain’s unemployment rate was about 25 percent—about 50 percent for young workers. Several Spanish political parties called for his abdication.

What do you think? Will Spain’s new king be more successful in his role of head of state? What are the advantages of having the positions of head of state and head of government separated, like in Spain? What are the advantages of having the positions unified, as they are in countries like the United States?

Kings, Queens, and Contemporary European Politics

The Netherland's Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix last week abdicated her position, handing the monarchy to her son, Willem-Alexander. Her decision was seen as both unexpected and usual, bucking the trend of other European monarchs, such as those in Spain, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark, which have held on to power despite personal and political challenges. While far more popular than her son, it is unlikely that Queen Beatrix’s resignation will have any lasting effect on Dutch politics.

But what exactly do kings and queens do?

Many European countries retain a hereditary monarchy by tradition. The functions of the executive, which are fused into a single office in the United States, are separated into two offices under these systems. The monarch usually serves as the ceremonial head of state, while a president or prime minister serves as the head of government. The responsibilities of the head of state are largely symbolic; real power is vested in the head of government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth is the ceremonial head of state, while Prime Minister David Cameron is the active head of government. Queen Elizabeth performs public duties like opening parliament and receiving ambassadors, while David Cameron performs the real governing, introducing legislation, making policy decisions, and so on.

The separation of the two positions carries some advantages. In countries like Belgium, where language politics have created strong divisions within the country and made governance (at least at the national level) effectively impossible, a ceremonial head of state (King Albert II) can provide a sense of continuity and acts as a symbol of national unity. There are also some who argue that the separation of the two positions creates additional checks on the power of the government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth II must give “royal assent” (approval) to all legislation passed by parliament. While royal ascent has not been withheld in Great Britain since the 1700s, it has been denied more recently in some former British colonies. Canada’s Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada), denied royal assent to a bill in 1963. Despite its rare usage, many groups lobby the Queen to deny royal assent on measures they oppose.

That said, ceremonial heads of state can sometimes create headaches for

Spain's King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

political leaders. Take, for example, Spain’s King Juan Carlos’s decision last year to participate in a €10,000-a-day hunting safari in Botswana as the country’s struggled with an ongoing economic crisis and an unemployment rate reaching 30 percent—hardly the image Spain wanted to project at the time.

What do you think? Does the division of executive power into multiple offices establish a stronger, more effective, or more democratic government? Or does it merely create greater opportunity for corruption and uncertainty? Would support the creation of a separate head of state in the United States? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think?

The Future of the British Commonwealth

Queen Elizabeth on a State Visit to Australia

Queen Elizabeth on a State Visit to Australia

With a close election battle looming in Australia on Saturday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed Australia end its recognition of the British monarchy when the reign of Queen Elizabeth ends. Like sixteen other members of the Commonwealth Realms (the others being Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom), Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state for Australia. These countries divide the ceremonial post of head of state [glossary] from the formal positions of leadership held by the head of government [glossary], usually the prime minister.

The division of powers between a ceremonial head of state and a head of government with real powers is common. Indeed, there are 44 countries around the world (the majority in Europe) which maintain a monarchy vested with ceremonial authority.

As Joshua Keating notes in his post on the Australian debate, the current generation of monarchs, which includes Queen Elizabeth II as well as King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and King Carl Gustav XVI of Sweden), retains a good deal of popularity. But future Kings and Queens will likely face a great deal of public skepticism about their relevance and cost.

Australia rejected a proposal to establish a republic [glossary] in a previous referendum in 1999. But the prospect of King Charles appears to be lending a renewed impetus for reconsidering the previous proposal.

But is there still a need for a ceremonial head of state? In most presidential systems, the elected president performs both the day-to-day functions of the head of government as well as the ceremonial duties of the head of state. For its detractors, though, such a system lacks the stability guaranteed by a (presumably) non-partisan ceremonial head of state. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s current proposal may be nothing more than simple electioneering. But it does raise some interesting questions about the viability of the next generation of European monarchs.

Does Canada Need a New Head of State?

Prince Charles, who will likely become the symbolic role of head of state [glossary] of the United Kingdom when his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, passes, is visiting Canada this week. His eleven-day visit, which began on Monday in Newfoundland, will take him across Canada, from the Maritimes to Ontario, to Canada’s Pacific coast, and back to Quebec and Ontario for Remembrance Day ceremonies before returning to the United Kingdom.

But Princes Charles faces some challenges during his visit. On his first day in Canada, Charles called on Canada to exhibit greater leadership in the climate change debate. The Canadian government, currently headed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephan Harper, has been criticized for its foot-dragging on the climate change debate.

The visit comes at a time when the British monarchy in general and Prince Charles in particular face growing unpopularity in Canada. Like many former British colonies, Canada’s political system separates the ceremonial position of head of state and the position which yields real political power, head of government, [glossary] into two separate posts. In the United States, the two offices are fused into a single position, the president of the United States. But in Canada and many other former British colonies, the ceremonial position of head of state is occupied by the reigning British monarch (currently the Queen Elizabeth II), who is represented in Canada by the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the parliament.

But according to recent polling data, the British crown facing declining popularity in Canada. While Rosie DiManno criticized Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General Michaëlle Jean for their poor protocol during Charles’ speech in Newfoundland, most Canadians appear to be apathetic about the whole visit. According to the CBC, while 80 percent of respondents agreed that the monarchy had an important place in Canada’s history, more than 60 percent felt the constitutional monarchy at the heart of Canada’s political system was outdated. The Societe St-Jean Baptiste, an organization pushing for sovereignty and independence for Francophone Quebec, went even further, demanding that before he would be welcomed in the province, Prince Charles apologize for a litany of British offences, including acts of “cultural genocide” committed against Francophone Canadians during British colonialism. Based on the polling data, a plurality of Canadians (41%) would prefer to see Charles passed over for his son, Prince William, rather than succeed Queen Elizabeth himself, while a minority (31%) believes he should be king.

The polling data suggest that Canada’s political system may be in for reform in the future. Does an independent, ceremonial head of state have a role to play in the political system? In many states, such a position exists and often plays an important role. In Belgium, King Albert II lacks any real political power but has played a central role in efforts to maintain the fragile unity of the country amid efforts to divide the country along linguistic lines. In Germany, the President performs a largely ceremonial function, while real political authority is vested in the Chancellor. Japan maintains its Emperor, Luxembourg has its Grand Duke, and the Netherlands its queen, all reminders of the historical legacy of the monarchy and important cultural references for the people. But the model used in many states of the British Commonwealth is unique insofar as the head of state is not a national of the country itself. Can a British King serve as the ceremonial leader of Canada? It’s a question many Canadians seem to be asking.