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Some countries, particularly those governed by the parliamentary system, tend to have a ceremonial head of state.

In constitutional monarchies, those tend to be Kings or Queens. But in parliamentary republics, those tend to be democratically-elected Presidents.

Examples:

  • Estonia: President is elected by Parliament, whose power is narrowly defined by Constitution.
  • Finland: President is elected by popular vote, and wields limited executive power alongisde Cabinet.
  • Germany: President is elected by the federal convention, and requires Cabinet approval to exercise most powers.
  • Iceland: President is elected by popular vote, and is bound by convention to defer executive decisions to the Cabinet.
  • Ireland: President is elected by popular vote, but does not possess executive power.

A common critique of this system is that a ceremonial President does not do anything, and is essentially a pointless office. Some might even argue that a country can very well function without them.

What are some strong arguments which justify having a ceremonial President in a democratic republic?

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While the presidents may have mostly ceremonial roles in practice as far as day-to-day politics are concerned, they do often have important roles in managing transitions in times of crisis. They are expected to be non-partisan, speaking for the country as a whole and being a unifying figure.

Besides that, separating the ceremonial roles of the president and the executive powers of the prime minister/chancellor opens up new possibilities for diplomacy. You get an official head of state who can represent the country in international relations, without being directly involved in day-to-day politics, therefore being potentially less controversial (although there have also been examples of controversial presidents).

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Even a ceremonial role can be important. For example, in the German Grundgesetz (literally "Fundamental Law", the German Constitution), it is stated rather matter-of-factly that the legislature passes a bill, then the President signs it, and then it becomes law.

This is simply presented as a fact, as a given sequence of events that always happens: legislature votes, President signs.

No consideration is given to the question: what happens if the President doesn't sign the law? According to the Grundgesetz, that option doesn't exist: the Grundgesetz says that the President signs it. Period. Legislature votes, President signs, this is simply presented as an automatic process. The President not signing is not even conceivable within the framework of the Grundgesetz.

Some people have argued that it should theoretically be possible to force the President to sign the bill, but that's not very clear either. The Grundgesetz doesn't say the President must sign the bill. It just says the President does.

So … if the signing is automatic, then it is irrelevant, right? Well, but the Grundgesetz also says that the bill only becomes law after the President has signed it. So, that means it is relevant?

Some people have argued that since this process is fully automatic, it should just be removed from the Grundgesetz. However, the majority argues that since it is in the Grundgesetz, it is in there for a reason, and should stay in.

A whole theory of how precisely to interpret this conundrum has developed around this seemingly innocent sentence. Today, it is interpreted as a safety valve, where the President can choose not to sign a bill if the President believes it would be unconstitutional to do so.

This is an example of how a seemingly solely ceremonial act can nonetheless have an important democratic function.

There is another case where the President has an important role: if a Chancellor is elected with only a simple majority but without an absolute majority of all members of the Bundestag, then the President can, at their discretion, either appoint that person Chancellor or dissolve the Bundestag, thus triggering a new election.

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  • We know what happens when the German president does not sign a law , as President Köhler refused to sign the "Flugsicherungsgesetz" and the "Verbraucherinformationsgesetz". In both cases a modified version went into law. It true, though, that this caused some consternation, since it is expected that the German president does not exercise his powers. Mar 7 at 18:30
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    If the president's signing a bill is presented in the same way as the legislature's passing it, why does that imply that the signing is automatic? The legislature in fact exercises its collective discretion not to pass bills when it votes against them; why doesn't the president have similar discretion not to sign them?
    – phoog
    Mar 7 at 20:08
  • @phoog, because there was basically a gentlemen's agreement since the founding of the FRG that the president would not exercise his powers (which btw also include confirming federal judges, civil servants and officers in the armed forces). President Horst Köhler's idea of being a more active president sent shockwaves through the FRG's political establishment, and the pushback might have been a factor in Köhler being the only German president so far to resign. That's in a way historic precedent rather than anything written down. Mar 7 at 20:33
  • @phoog: "If the president's signing a bill is presented in the same way as the legislature's passing it" – It isn't. The GG spends 19 articles in excruciating detail on the relationship between the States and the Federation, 20 on the two chambers of Parliament, 13 on the legislative process, and 8 on the President. The sentence in question isn't even in the part of the GG that deals with the President, it is a throwaway sentence in the very last article about the boring procedural details of the legislative process. It is literally just two words in an article that deals with the question … Mar 7 at 20:56
  • … which paper to publish a law in. The article reads, roughly "The Laws passed according to the statutes of this Constitution are issued by the President after countersigning and published in the Bundesgesetzblatt." That's it. Two words versus 60 articles covering dozens of pages: "after countersigning". Mar 7 at 20:59
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Parliamentarian republics are often very unstable - politically, suffering from common parliament dissolvements due to Cabinet vs Parliament disputes (Americans: imagine every impeachment attempt would virtually mean new presidential elections).

A ceremonial leader of the country, who doesn't take part in the every day political dramas, is therefore seen as a way of providing the citizens with a feeling of stability and national unity.

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    I'd need to see some data to support the unstable argument. The UK is a parliamentary democracy and has had only 3 governments lose a no confidence votes in the last century.
    – Jontia
    Mar 7 at 15:06
  • @Jontia well, UK is more an exception in that regard in Europe, I think, perhaps due to the voting system. In Austria, on the other hand, there have been 7 parliamentary elections in the last 22 years, despite the parliament being elected for a period of 4 (until 2007) or 5 years (since 2007). Only one government(Feymann 2008-2013) served for the full term in that period, as far as I remember.
    – Hulk
    Mar 7 at 15:50
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    @Hulk Italy or the French 3rd Republic could be other examples. All have figurehead presidents. In Austria, s/he is even directly elected by the people. There is a discussion to be had on parlimentary vs. semi-presidential systems and how this interacts with the party and electoral system but that's not what this question is about. How is the mere fact that there is a president supposed to mitigate the instability?
    – Relaxed
    Mar 7 at 16:15
  • @Relaxed well, they are typically expected to be non-partisan, often elderly politicians who are not expected to have much personal ambition any more. Plus, at least in Austria, they get to nominate the next chancellor, and they can refuse to accept ministers. This makes it a bit harder to just grab executive power, even with a parliamentary majority.
    – Hulk
    Mar 7 at 16:27
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    Germany and Ireland have figurehead presidents, but stable governments. In contrast, Italy and Israel have figurehead presidents and seem to frequently be in a mess. It might be partly a matter of the precise nature of the voting system, as well as political culture more generally, but not a consequence of the presidency.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 8 at 16:29

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