Selection and functions of head of state

In addition to the main job of running the executive arm of government, there are two other very different functions to be performed by someone at the very pinnacle of the government system. One is the fairly frequent task of carrying out formal, ceremonial functions such as meeting other heads of state during state visits. This must, by convention and in terms of international etiquette, be carried out by the nominal Head of State. The other, much more rarely required but vitally important when it happens, is to resolve disputes and uncertainties concerning the election of a new government ( As was the case in extreme form in Spain 1981 when King Juan Carlos played a major role in preventing a coup that attempted to revert Spain to Francoist government in the King's name).

The ceremonial functions can be time consuming, and must be a very real distraction from the task of government for an elected president, who combines the job of head of the government with that of formal head of state. The splitting of these jobs between different people therefore has a definite advantage in this area, and is achieved by both a constitutional monarchy and by the use of an elected or appointed figurehead president. There is also the intermediate option, as in France, of a president who has some executive functions but also a prime minister who carries out the greater part of them.

The more important dispute resolution task has, by its very nature, to be carried out by someone other than the head of government. It may be rarely required, but the survival of the democratic system can depend on having someone with a sufficiently strong personality to take the necessary decision(s). Again, either a constitutional monarch or an elected or appointed "figurehead" president can carry out this role. Where there is an executive president, the decision will be taken by the most senior court of justice as it inevitably becomes a matter of legal interpretation. None of the approaches can be regarded as a perfect solution to this problem. There is nothing in the method of creating any monarch or figurehead president to ensure they will have the necessary personality to do the job successfully. In both cases steps can be taken to ensure they are at least properly trained in constitutional theory so at least they have the understanding of the true issues (provided they have the intellectual capacity, which can by no means be guaranteed). The legalistic approach largely avoids that aspect of the problem, but is more likely to suffer from political bias on the part of the judges concerned, or at least to give rise to that suspicion (as was the case in USA in the 2000 presidential election).

One problem, or potential problem, with the constitutional monarchy approach is the danger of developing a wholly undesirable (for many reasons) social superstructure with associated extravagant expenditure, snobbery and prejudice. This is seen in quite extreme form in UK, a little less so in a few other countries and largely avoided in yet others (notably in Scandinavia and 
Netherlands). What no monarchical system avoids, however, is the lottery which effectively determines the appointment of a new monarch on the death, incapacity or abdication of the incumbent, with no control whatever to ensure any kind of intellectual or other mental competence.

For these reasons I favour the use of a "figurehead" president, provided one can be appointed in a suitable manner, and provided once in office he can be removed against his will only with great difficulty. To ensure his (or her) competence he should be required to pass an examination in constitutional theory and law before taking office, or alternatively the selection could be of a senior constitutional lawyer, such as a member of the supreme court. To ensure independence and (so far as possible) political neutrality the appointment must be subject to approval by a large majority of both the legislature and in a referendum, and the term of office should be much longer than that for either the legislature or the political part of the executive - 20 or 25 years seems reasonable, but timed so that the election does not coincide with any other major election. A vice-president would need to be elected, presumably at the same time, to ensure someone was able to step in at a moment's notice in the event of an unexpected vacancy. The prime responsibility of the president would be to uphold the constitution and to resolve disputes relating to the appointment of the prime minister.

In Germany, which has a mainly titular president of this kind, he/she is elected every five years by a special convention consisting of the members of each of the two legislative chambers plus an equal number of representatives elected by the regional parliaments. However, in this case I believe the president does not exercise the kind of constitutional role described above, which is instead carried out by the constitutional court. This German approach I would certainly think is a viable alternative option.

A further possible responsibility of the president, which I would favour, is to be the head of a specialist department responsible for administering all elections. 

Another possible function, which again I think has a lot of merit, would be to head a department responsible for the regulation and monitoring of other government functions, possibly in the form of regulator of regulators, ensuring that bodies such as OFCOM, OFGEN, Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, regulators of organisations like banks, solicitors and accountants all did their jobs properly in the public interest.

So in summary the system would be:

This should be primarily a non-party political office, so anyone who has held ministerial office in any government or who has been the leader of any national political party should be ineligible. On accepting nomination each candidate should be required to agree if elected to undertake appropriate training before taking office. Nominees should also be subject to a security check and a test 
of competence.

Method of Appointment
It should be possible to have a head of state (president?) nominated by either house of the legislature or by a body representing (or consisting of) the senior judges, or possibly by the outgoing president when there is one. There should then be an election by the whole electorate (using the alternative vote system), with "Re-open nominations" as an option on the ballot. 

Duration of office:
The normal full period of office should be lengthy, bearing in mind the method of appointment and the value of experience in carrying out the task. Perhaps 20 years or so would be reasonable. Of course he/she could resign at any time. The incumbent could also be ejected from office for wrongdoing (conviction of a serious criminal offence, including abuse of office) or on a motion of no confidence carried by a substantial majority of both legislative houses and the senior judiciary and confirmed by referendum. 

Uphold the provisions of the constitution;
Supervise the election/selection of the head of government (prime minister);
Control and supervise the various regulatory bodies set up to ensure government and other organisations carry out properly their assigned duties without exceeding their authority;
The right to nominate a candidate for election as his successor at the end of his term of office;
Supervise the election of his successor indirectly through the senior regulator of elections;
To act as host and official representative in formal meetings with other heads of state and other such purposes (just as the monarch does in UK and other constitutional monarchies now).
Supervision of all elections is another possibility, but the regulatory function already mentioned may be sufficient involvement in this process.

[I tried to put all the section headings in bold, but it only seemed to work in one place!]

edited on Apr 15, 2015 by Ruobing Wang

Ruobing Wang Apr 5, 2015

Hello, Dear Contributors


Welcome to the refining stage! In the next 2 weeks, we are looking forward to working with you, in order to refine selected ideas and produce concise final propositions based on these ideas. 

For this purpose, Head of State facilitators would like to remind you of the new features available to every contributor at this stage. Now, you can add, amend or withdraw votes already cast. This would be very important for us to see which ideas truly reflected your preferences, and to ensure that your preferences are represented fairly. 

Also, in the selected ideas, many overlap with others. Please use your judgment when choosing and voting on the ideas that are truly representative of your views.




Head of State Team