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As an example, in Germany the President appoints and dismisses the remaining members of the Federal Government upon the proposal of the Chancellor. The President doesn't have a say in the process and must always approve the candidate. Other examples I know include the UK (the Queen cannot overrule anything in practice), the Commonwealth states and Czech Republic.

But what's the point of having the President approve candidates (or the government in general) in the first place, if he doesn't really have a choice in the process? Couldn't it be simply done automatically without the President's involvement then?

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  • I am not sure the German president - an office that has purposefully been designed to be mostly decorative as a response to lessons from German history - is useful as an example (also while the German president typically does not meddle with the choice of cabinet posts there is no law that would stop him from doing so. The constitution/"Grundgesetz" does not make provisions regarding that question). Could you perhaps add more, or more representative, examples ?
    – user10415
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 7:15
  • @EikePierstorff It's quite representative of a number of parliamentary democracies (including those with an hereditary monarch).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 7:19
  • As a side note: To my knowledge there has been at least one incident where the German president refused to sign a law, stalling it a for a short while... (google "Horst Köhler verweigert Unterschrift") But I am pretty sure he could not have done so ad infinitum. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 8:06
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    @DrCopyPaste there have been several - Heuss in 1951, Lübke in 1960, Heinemann in 1969, Weizsäcker in 1991, Köhler in 2006. Also Rau in 2002 signed off changes to the immigration law, but suggested that it should be referred to the Constitutional Court (which promptly decided against the law). The president must not sign a law that he deems unconstitutional (which was the given reason in each of the incidents), so that's really not that unusual.
    – user10415
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 8:21
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    @EikePierstorff done Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 8:25

5 Answers 5

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As is often true of the UK constitution, theory and practise have diverged over time. In theory, all executive power rests with the Queen; but as a result of a slow and gradual transfer of power from the monarchy to Parliament and the government, in practise, (almost) all executive actions are carried out by the government, in the Queen's name - to the extent that the Queen herself can only carry out official actions that are sanctioned by the government.

So when it comes to government appointments, the Queen still retains the de jure power, while the government holds the de facto power. Hence the Queen formally appoints ministers - but strictly on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. (The Prime Minister is usually appointed on the recommendation of the outgoing PM).

As this system of parliamentary government first evolved in the UK, it has been used as a model for parliamentary states around the world. Where monarchs have been replaced with presidents, the now-mostly ceremonial role of the head of state has often been retained, even where there is no tradition associated with it as there is in the UK.

Couldn't it be simply done automatically without the President's involvement then?

Absolutely, and there is at least one country where the head of state is not involved: Sweden, where Parliament elects the Prime Minister, and it is the Speaker who confirms the appointment on behalf of Parliament, not the monarch. The PM then appoints ministers, without the monarch's involvement.

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  • Another example is the Netherlands (but only since a few years, interestingly).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 0:24
  • @Relaxed Incorrect, the King is still involved for top-level appointments. For the PM and other ministers, see Dutch constitution article 43: "De minister-president en de overige ministers worden bij koninklijk besluit benoemd en ontslagen."
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 0:43
  • @Sjoerd Surely, you're aware of the recent changes so if you were less busy playing know-it-all, you would recognise what I was referring to. He uses to choose the informateur but no more. So his involvement has become purely ceremonial and implying otherwise by citing the constitution without explaining that is more misleading than glossing over the details.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 5, 2017 at 5:31
  • @Relaxed Nice diversion. As a comment on an answer talking about PM and Ministers, you point at the informateur without mentioning it. Besides, the King is still head of the Raad van State, and the King speaks with the PM every week (and with other ministers whenever the King wants to). The King's role is not purely ceremonial yet, although that informateur thingy was a step towards that goal.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 22:32
  • @Sjoerd What other change could I be referring to? That was until recently the king's most important role and a substantial contribution to the formation of the government. If anything is a diversion, it's your discussion of the day-to-day business of government and other ceremonial purposes when the whole discussion was about appointing the cabinet. I did not see any need to elaborate because I thought it would have obvious to people who knew the system, irrelevant to the rest, and something anybody with a bit of intelligence and honesty could figure out easily when reading my comment…
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 6:04
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The German version of Wikipedia elaborates on this:

Der Bundespräsident ernennt die vom Bundeskanzler Vorgeschlagenen zu Bundesministern und Staatssekretären. Inwieweit der Bundespräsident dabei personelle Auswahlkompetenzen besitzt, ist im Grundgesetz nicht geregelt. In der traditionell gelebten Verfassungsrealität hat der Bundespräsident ein formales Prüfungsrecht, also bspw. bezüglich der Frage, ob der Vorgeschlagene den formalen Anforderungen des Amtes entspricht (bspw. ob er Deutscher ist, das Mindestalter erfüllt etc.). Ein weitergehendes materielles oder personelles Prüfungsrecht ist zwar im Grundgesetz keineswegs ausgeschlossen, hat sich aber in der Verfassungswirklichkeit nicht entwickelt. Die heutige Tradition, dass sich der Bundespräsident in die Personalpolitik des Bundeskanzlers nicht einmischt, geht zurück auf ein diesbezügliches Ansinnen von Theodor Heuss, der sich vor der Ernennung der Minister des ersten Kabinetts Adenauer eine Ministerliste vorlegen lassen wollte. Adenauer wies diese Forderung jedoch zurück, Theodor Heuss gab nach und etablierte so die seither geübte Vorgehensweise, die auch bei der Entlassung eines Ministers oder Kabinetts angewendet wird.

A minor detail is that the president is supposed to check whether the candidates meet formal requirements like being a German citizen or meeting age requirements.

More importantly, none of this is clearly defined in the constitution but stems from a tradition established around the time the current constitution was enacted. The framers of the constitution might have intended for the president to have a more active role and there is nothing formally preventing it.

In fact, in 1949, Theodor Heuss asked Konrad Adenauer to provide a list of candidates from which he would choose the ministers himself but ultimately had to cave in and name the people Adenauer wanted. But the president could still, in principle, refuse to name someone and the chancellor would typically seek informal contact beforehand to avoid that. Case in point, in 1953, Heuss forced Adenauer not to (re)nominate Thomas Dehler as justice minister and this time, it's Adenauer who caved in.

This shows that avoiding open conflict and, to this date, always following the advice of the chancellor does not mean the president has absolutely no influence in the process. At the same time, breaking with tradition is not risk-free and that means such a prerogative can only be used in really serious cases.

Generally speaking, it's not uncommon for the details of a constitutional framework to be elaborated over time and to differ sometimes markedly from what the letter of the constitution seem to suggest (the role of the president in the third French Republic is another example). But going back to amend the text is just a lot of trouble and typically not considered necessary.

Beyond that, it means two people are involved. I have no idea whether that was the original intent but it might provide some sort of safety mechanism in times of crisis (say a minister is about to take some important decision, the chancellor cannot just prevent that from happening by dismissing the minister, he or she must wait for the president to formally act on the recommendation for it to be legally effective).

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  • It's strange that so much is left up for interpretation in that system when compared to the American one, where there are exact procedures on appointments and dismissals. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 8:00
  • @JonathanReez "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Most governments are run and undergirded by traditions; common beliefs that as long as we stay within a certain arena of civil (procedural) behavior then the branches can trust each other to be acting in good faith, even if they don't necessarily agree on policy. Exact procedures emerge as a response to a problem: a threat to citizenry, an Executive that defies traditions in order to get what it would deny him and undercuts this assumption of good faith, a power hungry legislative party intent on government power being only theirs, etc. Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 10:56
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There are several reasons:

  1. History and tradition: Most parliamentary democracies descend from the UK model, where the head of state serves a ceremonial role. If your country used to be a monarchy or autocracy, this is an attractive way of transitioning to democracy without upending the entire system.

  2. Political stability: Many parliamentary democracies prefer to have a constitutional "mediator" between political actors, especially in a multi-party system where parties have to choose a chief executive (i.e. Chancellor, Prime Minsiter) in good faith. Since the ceremonial head of state has no stake in the power game, he or she is assumed to have a stabalizing force during period of transition.

  3. Political legitimacy: In some countries, a ceremonial appointment by an impartial head of state bestows an universally recognized legitimacy. This is especially true in countries with weak democratic norms, and political actors often partake in bad-faith or nakedly partisan behavors. If the person who appoints the chief executive is such a person, it may undermine the legitimacy of the process - meaning that even if the outcome is legal, it would not be accepted by the people.

To be clear, all of the functions mentioned above can be played by someone other than the head of state. In Sweden, most of the monarch's constitutional duties had been transferred to the Speaker of Parliament (who represents the Parliament itself). In Switzerland, the Parliament itself chooses the chief executives (who act as collective head of state) without involvement from other actor. What's important is that people act in good faith during the process.

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In most modern constitutional monarchies, the monarch is the Head of State, while the head parliamentarian (Prime Minister/Chancellor) is the Head of Government. When European nations become Republics, they typically adopt a system similar to this, where the elected Head of State serves the same role as a monarch in a monarchy, but with limited powers. These types of Republics are called "Semi-Presidential Republics," which denotes that while there is a president, they typically have weaker powers than a "Presidential Republic."

The U.S. balance of power decided that the Westminster system was indeed pointless. The reason why the revolutionaries blamed the King, despite the King of Britain having no power to draft law at the time, is that the King still had to give Royal Assent to the law. He was the only legal authority that colonial Americans could appeal to to block taxes on them, but since by that point Royal Assent was basically a rubber stamp for the Prime Minister, this never happened. When they set up their government, they took enforcement of the laws (executive power) away from the writing of the laws (legislative power) and made the Presidential Veto more enticing to use by removing the President from the job of a figurehead. Presidential Republics are far more popular in North America (where most of the mainland nations are Presidential Republics) and all but one or two nations in South America (Peru is the only Semi-Presidential Republic; French Guiana is a weird situation as it is still technically part of France, and France has an interesting dynamic in that the President is the head of state and head of government of France while his party has majority control over the National Assembly, but the Prime Minister becomes head of government when the majority is not controlled by the President's party. This is far less likely to happen these days, because of reforms that made the vote for both the assembly and the President held in the same election, so it's unlikely for any party divergence to occur. (Additional fun fact: South America is the only continent in the world in which a monarchy does not exist.)

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  • "These types of Republics are called "Semi-Presidential Republics," No they're not; most European countries without monarchs are parliamentary republics. There are European semi-presidential republics, which include France and Portgual; a feature of that system is that the President has real powers. Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 14:59
  • @SteveMelnikoff I think you and I are working off of different definitions. My understanding of Semi-presidential is that the President is head of state only. The political powers that the office holds will differ between nations.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 13:02
  • I can only direct you to the articles linked in my previous comment. Most western European countries are either parliamentary republics or parliamentary monarchies; in both cases, the head of state (whether a president or a monarch) has very few powers and stays out of politics. In a semi-presidential state (e.g. France, Portgual, and also Russia), the president has real powers, and there is also a Prime Minister who also has some powers. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 15:14
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It is simply an attempt to add meaning to otherwise meaningless position. Country wants to have an official head to add social decorum to state actions and procedures, like e.g. giving orders, performing speeches or appointing people to offices. Of course orders could be awarded by an administrative decision and send by post, but having head of state handing the order during official ceremony have its own value.

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    Do you have any evidence to back up this view? Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 12:50
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    The process also provides some limited transparency as the actions of the President or monarch are usually public and centralized with an active corps of journalists covering the head of state's actions. This makes a secret appointment of a person to a position requiring this approval impossible and provides a source not reasonably subject to question from which the name of the current incumbent in the post can be determined if the fact that an appointment was made is disputed. This isn't the only way to accomplish this goal, but it does accomplish this goal.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 21:07

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