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In politics, a figurehead is a practice of who de jure (in name or by law) appears to hold an important and often supremely powerful title or office, yet de facto (in reality) exercises little to no actual power. This usually means that they are head of state, but not head of government. The metaphor derives from the carved figurehead at the prow of a sailing ship.


Monarchs in some constitutional monarchies, and presidents in parliamentary republics, are often considered to be figureheads. Commonly cited figureheads include the monarch of the United Kingdom, who is also monarch of 14 other Commonwealth realms and head of the Commonwealth, but has no power over the nations in which the sovereign is not head of government and does not exercise power in the realms on their own initiative.[1][2] Other figureheads include the Emperor of Japan and the King of Sweden, as well as presidents in a majority of parliamentary republics, such as the presidents of India, Israel, Bangladesh, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Pakistan, Singapore, and Poland.

In one-party communist states, the role of the head of state is also a de jure figurehead with few legally-defined powers, although in many cases the position has simultaneously been held by the party general secretary, who is the de facto leader. During Deng Xiaoping's leadership, the presidency of the People's Republic of China was held by two figureheads, Li Xiannian and Yang Shangkun. Since 1993, the position has also been held by the CCP General Secretary.[3][4]

During the crisis of the March on Rome in 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, though a figurehead, played a key role in handing power to Benito Mussolini. He also played a key role in the dismissal of Mussolini in 1943.

As a derogatory term

The word can also have more sinister overtones, and refer to a powerful leader, who should be exercising full authority, who is actually being controlled by a more powerful figure behind the throne.

See also


  1. ^ Bowman, John (October 4, 2002). "Constitutional monarchies". CBC News. Archived from the original on Feb 2, 2013.
  2. ^ Stinson, Jeffrey (May 3, 2006). "On queen's 80th, Britons ask: Is monarchy licked?". USA Today. Archived from the original on Jun 28, 2011. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
  3. ^ Chris Buckley; Adam Wu (10 March 2018). "Ending Term Limits for China's Xi Is a Big Deal. Here's Why. - Is the presidency powerful in China?". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 12 March 2018. Retrieved 28 September 2019. In China, the political job that matters most is the General Secretary of the Communist Party. The party controls the military and domestic security forces, and sets the policies that the government carries out. China's presidency lacks the authority of the American and French presidencies.
  4. ^ "A simple guide to the Chinese government". South China Morning Post. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 28 September 2019. Xi Jinping is the most powerful figure in the Chinese political system. He is the President of China, but his real influence comes from his position as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.