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While many parliamentarian systems require the parliament to hold a vote to confirm its Prime Minister (e.g. Germany, Ireland, Finland), that is not always the case. Here are some examples:

  • Denmark: The monarch (Queen Margrethe II) usually appoints the MP best suited to be Prime Minister after consulting with leaders of all political parties.
  • United Kingdom: The monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) usually appoints the leader of the party that won the majority of seats in the last election. The same applies to Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
  • Iceland: The president appoints an MP to be Prime Minister based on the same method as Denmark.

Questions:

  1. In theory, could the head of state hijack the government formation process since they have a monopoly on who to nominate as Prime Minister? What's keeping them in check?
  2. Why do these countries still count as parliamentary democracy when the parliament doesn't get to vote for its Prime Minister during the government formation process? Shouldn't they be considered semi-presidential systems instead?
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A lot of it comes down to trust, goodwill and respect for the democratic norm.

I'll focus this answer mostly on the UK, since that is the system I'm most familier with:

"Could the Head of State hijack the government formation process" Not if she wants to remain head of state. Its been quipped that the Queen gets a veto, but she get exactly one veto. You must distinguish between the private person of the Queen and the Queen as an embodiment of the power of the state. The Queen has absolutely no power to choose a Prime Minister she must follow democratic norms and appoint the person who can command a majority in the Commons. Personally she might advise or be consulted, but acting as Monarch she can only follow convention. This is as binding on the Queen as any clause of the German Constitution. She simply does not have the power to repeatedly appoint someone who doesn't have confidence of the Commons.

The Queen is kept in check by the simple power of Parliament to require her act in a certain way, or to abdicate or abolish the monarchy. This requirement to follow the instructions of the governement was recently tested when the PM sought to prorogue Parliament, and the Queen followed his instructions without question until such time as it was established that the instructions were not legal. Remember that advice from a PM to a Queen is like a "advice" from a police officer: If you don't follow that advice there is likely to be consequences...

In these countries Parliament does get to vote for the Prime Minister, but normally a formal vote is not needed. The parliamentary arithmetic is known and there is no need for debate. If there is any doubt, the opposition is free to put down a no-confidence motion (as they did on Theresa May's minority government)

The definition of a Parliamentary Democracy is one in which an elected Parliament is Sovereign. It doesn't require a Prime Minister, nor is the definition dependent on whether a Prime Minister must have an explicit vote of confidence or an implicit vote of confidence at the start of their appointment.

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In the United Kingdom, there is a de facto vote of confidence after a general election. When a new session of Parliament begins, the government is expected to prepare a Queen's Speech, outlining its priorities for the upcoming session, and the House of Commons will then vote on whether or not they approve of the contents of the Speech. If the contents of the Speech are defeated, then that is generally considered to be a vote of no confidence, with the Prime Minister expected either to resign or to call an election.

Denmark and Iceland will hold similar votes, though in these countries the speeches are delivered by the Prime Minister rather than the monarch/president.

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  • That makes sense, but I'm still confused about the mediating-nature of the head of state in these situations. Theoretically, the Queens or President could repeatedly nominate their preferred candidate as Prime Minister against the wishes of Parliament, thereby creating an endless deadlock of nomination / vote of no confidence. Why do these scenarios don't happen that often in practice? – potatoguy Jun 14 at 8:00
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    What stops it presently is the fact that constitutional conventions are taken very seriously, and that in the scenario you described, the candidate who lost a vote of no confidence would not accept the nomination again. – Joe C Jun 14 at 8:13
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    Pretty much, yes. – Joe C Jun 14 at 8:15
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    There's also the consideration that Parliament is unlikely to approve a budget from a government it doesn't like, and if the government cannot spend money, that's a bit of a problem. – Joe C Jun 14 at 8:21
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    The Netherlands have a similar debate after a new government is formed (which may take months after an election due to coalition negotiations). Although there is no "vote of confidence," there will be voting on motions. Due to the coalition negotiation process, it's usually clear that there is enough support, but nothing is stopping the opposition from adding a "motion of no confidence" to that list. – Sjoerd Jun 14 at 23:00

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