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A prime minister is the most senior minister of cabinet in the executive branch of government in a parliamentary system. The position is usually held by, but need not always be held by, a politician. In many systems, the prime minister selects and can dismiss other members of the cabinet, and allocates posts to members within the Government. In most systems, the prime minister is the presiding member and chairman of the cabinet. In a minority of systems, notably in semi-presidential systems of government, a prime minister is the official who is appointed to manage the civil service and execute the directives of the president.
In parliamentary systems fashioned after the Westminster system, the prime minister is the presiding and actual head of the government and head of the executive branch. In such systems, the head of state or the head of state's official representative (i.e the monarch, president, or governor-general), although officially the head of the executive branch, in fact holds a ceremonial position. The prime minister is often, but not always, a member of parliament and is expected with other ministers to ensure the passage of bills through the legislature. In some monarchies the monarch may also exercise executive 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 and Minister for the Civil Service. Prime ministers may take other ministerial posts for example during the Second World War Winston Churchill was also Minister of Defence (although there was then no Ministry of Defence). The Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, was famous for forming his cabinet entirely of himself and his deputy as soon as the overall result of the 1972 federal election was beyond doubt (see First Whitlam Ministry).
The first actual usage of the term ''prime minister'' or ''Premier Ministre'' was used by Cardinal Richelieu when in 1625 he was named to head the royal council as prime minister of France. Louis XIV and his descendants generally attempted to avoid giving this title to their chief ministers.
The term prime minister in the sense that we know it originated in the 18th century in the United Kingdom. Since medieval times monarchs 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; William Cecil, Lord Burghley 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 grew tired of a first minister, he or she 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.
In the mid 17th century, after the English Civil War and the Protectorate, Parliament had strengthened its position and it emerged even more powerful after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The monarch could not establish any law or impose any tax without its permission.
Thus it has been said that the House of Commons became a part of the government and it has been only a further step of this development that a new kind of prime minister should emerge. This 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 Hanover, 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 himself 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 "prime minister," and throughout the 18th century parliamentarians and legal scholars continued to deny that any such position was known to the Constitution. The title was first referred to on government documents during the administration of Benjamin Disraeli but did not appear in the formal British Order of precedence until 1905. 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.
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 may be encountered both in constitutional monarchies (such as Belgium, Denmark, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Malaysia, Spain, Sweden, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), and in republics in which the head of state is an elected official (such as Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Montenegro, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Turkey) or an unelected official (such as Singapore before 1993) 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", "Taoiseach" and "Secretary of State": alternative titles usually equivalent in meaning to, or translated as, "prime minister". The head of government of the People's Republic of China is referred to as the Premier.
In some presidential or semi-presidential systems, such as those of France, Russia or South Korea, the prime minister is an official generally appointed by the president but usually approved by the legislature and responsible for carrying out the directives of the president and managing the civil service. (The premier of the Republic of China is also appointed by the president, but requires no approval by the legislature. Appointment of the prime minister of France requires no approval by the parliament either, but the parliament can force the resignation of the government.) 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 several means.
* By appointment by the head of state, without reference to parliament: While in practice most prime ministers under the Westminster system (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Malaysia, India and the United Kingdom) are the leaders of the largest party in parliament, technically the appointment of the prime minister is a royal prerogative exercised by the monarch or the governor-general. In India, the Prime Ministerial candidate must be a member of parliament either Lok Sabha (Lower House) or Rajya Sabha (Upper House). 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, for example, 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 party 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 session (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.
:During the period between the time it is clear that the incumbent government has been defeated at a general election, and the actual swearing-in of the new prime minister by the monarch or governor-general, that person is variously referred to as the "prime minister-elect", "...-designate" etc. Neither term is strictly correct from a constitutional point of view, but they have wide acceptance. In a situation in which a ruling party elects or appoints a new leader, the incoming leader will usually be referred as "prime minister-in-waiting." An example or this situation was in 2003 in Canada when Paul Martin was elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada while Jean Chretien was still prime minister.
* '''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 German 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, Romania, Thailand)
* Direct election by parliament: (Example: Japan, Papua New Guinea.)
* Direct election by popular vote: (Example: Israel, 1996-2001, where the prime minister was elected in a general election, with no regard to political affiliation.)
* Nomination by a state office holder other than the head of state or his/her representative:''' (Example: Under the modern Swedish Instrument of Government, the power to appoint someone to form a government has been moved from the monarch to the Speaker of Parliament and the parliament itself. The speaker nominates a candidate, who is then elected to prime minister (''statsminister'') by the parliament if an absolute majority of the members of parliament does not vote no (i.e. he can be elected even if more MP:s vote ''no'' than ''yes'').
Prime ministers and constitutions
The position, power and status of prime ministers differ depending on the age of the constitution.
'''Australia's constitution makes no mention of a Prime Minister of Australia.
Canada's''' constitution, being a 'mixed' or hybrid constitution (a constitution that is partly formally codified and partly uncodified) originally did not make any reference whatsoever to a prime minister, with her or his specific duties and method of appointment instead dictated by "convention." In the Constitution Act, 1982, passing reference to a "Prime Minister of Canada" is added, though only regarding the composition of conferences of federal and provincial first ministers.
'''Germany's Basic Law (1949) lists the powers, functions and duties of the federal chancellor.
India's constitution (1950) lists the powers, functions and duties of the Prime Minister of India.
Ireland's constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann (1937), provides for the office of Taoiseach in detail, listing powers, functions and duties.
Italy's constitution (1948) lists the powers, functions and duties of the Prime Minister of Italy.
Japan's constitution (1946) lists the powers, functions and duties of the Prime Minister of Japan.
Malta's constitution (1964) lists the powers, functions and duties of the Prime Minister of Malta.
Malaysia's constitution (1957) lists the powers, functions and duties of the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
The United Kingdom'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. Accordingly, it is often said "not to exist", indeed there are several instances of parliament declaring this to be the case. The prime minister sits in the cabinet solely by virtue of occupying another office, either First Lord of the Treasury (office in commission), or more rarely Chancellor of the Exchequer (the last of whom was Balfour in 1905).
Exit from office
Most prime ministers in parliamentary systems are not appointed for a specific term in 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 of 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 that 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 for 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 the United Kingdom, 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).
Different terms are used to describe prime ministers. In Germany and Austria the prime minister is actually titled Federal Chancellor (). In Russian Provisional Government the prime minister is actually titled Minister-Chairman while the Irish prime minister is called the (which is rendered into English as prime minister), and in Israel he is 'Rosh Memshalah' meaning head of government. In many cases, though commonly used, "prime minister" is not the official title of the office-holder; the Spanish prime minister is the Chairman of the Government (). Other common forms include president of the council of ministers (for example in Italy, ), President of the Executive Council, or Minister-President. In the Scandinavian countries the prime minister is called ''statsminister'' in the native languages (i.e. state minister). In federations, the head of government of subnational entities such as provinces is most commonly known as the premier, chief minister, governor or minister-president.
In non-Commonwealth countries the prime minister may be entitled to the style of Excellency like a president. In some Commonwealth countries prime ministers and former prime ministers are styled Right Honourable due to their position, for example in the Prime Minister of Canada. In the United Kingdom the prime minister and former prime ministers may appear to also be styled Right Honourable, however this is not due to their position as head of government but as a privilege of being current members of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council.
In the UK where devolved government is in place, the leaders of the Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh Governments are styled First Minister.
In Pakistan, the prime minister is referred to as ''"Wazir-e-Azam"'', meaning "Grand Vizier".
''Chairman or Chief?''
Irish political scientist Professor Brian Farrell coined the term ''Chairman or Chief'' to describe the two alternative concepts of prime ministerial leadership, in his book of the same name about the office of Taoiseach. The term, widely used in political science worldwide, draws a distinction between a head of government who is merely a facilitator and co-ordinator of a cabinet (the "chairman"), and those who lead it forcefully from the front, setting its policy agenda and requiring all ministers to follow the leader's policies (the "chief").
Examples of "chairmen" have included Bertie Ahern (Ireland), John Major (United Kingdom) and Couve de Murville (France), while examples of "chiefs" included Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (India), Seán Lemass (Ireland), Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair (United Kingdom), and Jacques Chirac when prime minister under ''cohabitation''.
Not every prime minister fits exclusively into either category: Éamon de Valera, though a strong personality, was only interested in controlling some of his government's agenda (usually constitutional matters and Anglo-Irish affairs), and allowed large areas to be decided by his colleagues. Though superficially a chief (and called "the Chief" [the literal translation of ''Taoiseach''] by his colleagues) historians see him as more of a chairman, particularly in later governments. Winston Churchill too, though superficially a "chief", was more chairmanlike in later governments and in those areas in which he had little personal interest.
As well as describing office holders, individual offices could be described as belonging to one or other category. Among the more dominant prime ministerial offices in terms of powers, and so more chieflike, are the premierships of Ireland and Spain, where premiers can hire and fire at will. In contrast, offices such as President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, Prime Minister of the Third French Republic, and the premierships of Belgium and The Netherlands are more chairmanlike in format. Lijphart referred to the premiership of the Netherlands as "''primus inter pares'' without due emphasis on ''primus''".
Description of the role
Wilfried Martens, who served as Prime Minister of Belgium, described his role as follows:
:First of all [the Prime Minister] must listen a lot, and when deep disagreements occur, he must suggest a solution to the matter. This can be done in different ways. Sometimes during the discussion, I note the elements of the problem and think of a proposal I can formulate to the Council (cabinet), the Secretary taking notes. The Ministers then insist on changing commas and full stops. The Prime Minister can also make a proposal which leaves enough room for amendments in order to keep the current discussion on the right tracks. When a solution must be found in order to reach a consensus, he can force one or two Ministers to join or resign.
Lists of Prime ministers
The following table groups the list of past and present prime ministers and details information available in those lists.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel
Silvio Berlusconi, the current Prime Minister of Italy
Yukio Hatoyama, the current Prime Minister of Japan
Robert Fico, the current Prime Minister of the Slovakia, meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadić