AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman
The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, after an unprecedented 70-year reign, is the most notable development in a remarkable but largely unnoticed transformation occurring around the globe. At almost the same time, several of the world’s major democratic nations have, or soon will, change their political leadership, even as the leaders of the world’s non-democratic totalitarian states hold on to power indefinitely.
The ascension in the U.K. of the Queen’s eldest son to the throne as King Charles III has reminded many Americans of the division in leadership duties that exists in most democratic nations apart from the United States. Unlike in America, where the president is both the symbolic or ceremonial head of state, as well as the chief executive of the government, many other countries divide these responsibilities into two posts. Only one, usually the chief of government, holds the most political power and is normally the de facto head of his or her political party. The other post, usually the head of state, is most frequently a ceremonial and symbolic position with a few, very limited political powers.
The United Kingdom is perhaps the most indelible example of this political duality. Over a thousand years, its royal monarch evolved from absolute power to the present largely symbolic role, ceding administrative power to the country’s prime minister.
In an exceedingly rare historic coincidence, this role too is changing hands at the very same time. After former Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned, he was replaced just days before the Queen’s death by Liz Truss, following a selection process that culminated in a vote of 160,000 members of her party. A general election involving all the political British parties will take place in 2025.
Where there is no monarch, other major European and Western nations often divide the two leadership posts between a president and a prime minister. In the case of France, the political power rests with the head of state, President Emmanuel Macron, who appoints a premier, currently Elisabeth Borne, from the French Parliament. Macron was recently re-elected as president, but lost his majority in the parliament soon thereafter.
In Germany, longtime chief of government Chancellor Angela Merkel, a historic figure, recently retired and was replaced by Olaf Scholtz. The head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, has primarily a ceremonial role in this key European nation.
Italy, which just concluded its national election, has taken a dramatic right turn by giving a conservative coalition led by Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli d’Italia Party control of both houses of the nation’s parliament. The ceremonial Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, will soon ask Meloni to be the first woman prime minister. This election in Europe’s fourth-largest economy is likely to have a significant impact on the region. This follows the recent election in Sweden, which conservatives also won, replacing a left-of-center government.
Spain, like the United Kingdom, is a constitutional monarchy, and similarly evolved from absolutism to parliamentary power. From 1939 to 1974, the monarchy was suspended by a dictator who was both head of government and chief of state. On his death, the Bourbon dynasty was restored to the previous king’s grandson, King Juan Carlos, and the political power was once again assumed by a prime minister, currently the socialist Pedro Sanchez. Although Juan Carlos was initially very popular, the king and his family went through a variety of scandals that diminished their public standing. Juan Carlos abdicated in favor of his son, Felipe VI, in 2014, but eventually the monarchy could be replaced, as it was in 1932, by a republic.
The constitutional monarchies of Norway, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark, in contrast, seem more stable, with their power in prime ministers and parliaments. Portugal, Austria, and Italy replaced their monarchies in the last century.
Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, once British colonies, retain the English monarch as their titular head of state, but as otherwise independent states, political power is held by their prime ministers. The recently elected new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party, has said he will work to end this traditional dual relationship, and have his nation become a republic—something Australians have rejected before, but which would be a truly historic development.
Japan, which traditionally held its emperor to be a deity, was allowed to keep Emperor Hirohito as a ceremonial head of state after World War II, and his descendants continue this role, but the prime minister as chief of government is the political leader of the nation. Japan, too, is going through a generational transition. Its longtime emperor abdicated in 2019, ceding the throne to his son. Meanwhile, the country has had two prime ministers in the last two years after the retirement of the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who was tragically assassinated while campaigning for his party earlier this year.
Israel, the sole true democracy in the Middle East, has both a president (Isaac Herzog) and prime minister (Yair Lapid) — with the latter in charge of the national government. Lapid is currently serving as an interim political leader. Longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was replaced in 2021 by the Israeli Parliament, but is contending to be returned to power in a national election to be held on November 1, the fifth in three years.
The two largest nations in the Western Hemisphere after the United States are Brazil and Mexico. Like the U.S., they combine the head of state with the chief of government as president. Brazil held elections this week, in a contest that now goes to a runoff that may result in the replacement of the country’s conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro, with a prior president, the socialist politician known simply as Lula, who was previously jailed in a corruption scandal, but had his conviction vacated by the courts.
The world’s largest democracy, India, has a prime minister, Narendra Modi, who runs the government, and a ceremonial president, Droupadi Murmu, the second woman to hold the post.
It is highly unusual for so many of the Western democracies to change their leadership in so short a time —especially when that includes the departure of such major figures as Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Queen Elizabeth II.
It is also noteworthy that within the framework of a monarch, president, chancellor, prime minister, and various named parliaments and legislatures, there is so much variety in implementing national power — and how persistent these structures are, even in the face of chronic dysfunction (Italy and Israel) which result in overly frequent elections and changes of leadership.
This global convulsion occurs amid a fair degree of turmoil within the United States as well. In recent years, divisions between the two major political parties have increased tensions between the two other branches, the legislative and the judiciary, and the president, resulting in impeachments and other challenges. The federal constitutional system which shares powers between the central government and the individual states has also heightened confrontations between the president and many governors.
This is a time of global unrest and change. History reveals that leadership personalities do matter, and that democratic states, a relatively recent phenomenon, can be fragile in times of political transformation. Whether the extraordinary turnover in leaders proves to be a positive avenue for fresh talent in the democracies, or an obstacle to peace, security, and freedom remains to be seen.
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