When German president Joachim Gauck recently announced that he would not seek a second term, casual headline scanners may have wondered: Who's Joachim Gauck? Isn't Germany's president Angela Merkel?
Thereby hangs a tale, as Trace Dominguez explains in today's Seeker Daily report.
Like many countries, Germany has both a president and a prime minister, also sometimes called a chancellor. The estimable Ms Merkel has held the latter post in Germany since 2005, while Gauck has served as president since 2012. The difference between the two government positions varies by nation, but generally speaking it comes down to a distinction between head of government and head of state.
Presidents are most often heads of state, which means they hold the country's highest political position and act as official representative of the nation. They are usually the principal figurehead in official gatherings or matters of international law, but don't hold much practical power in everyday affairs.
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This is the case in Germany, where Gauck is the rough equivalent of England's Queen Elizabeth. Confusing matters further, the president often appoints the prime minister -- the head of government -- but this is generally a formality.
Now, then: In countries have both political offices, the prime minister is typically elected by a legislative body, of which he or she is also a member. In the U.K., for instance, Prime Minister David Cameron was voted into office by Parliament, but appointed by the Queen. In some countries, the P.M. can hold several different posts within the government. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also the Minister of Communications, the Economy, the Interior, Foreign Affairs and Regional Cooperation.
As a general rule, then, the prime minister -- as head of government -- has more practical political power than the president, whose role as head of state is largely ceremonial.
However, in countries that have only a president and no prime minister --- like Brazil, South Africa and the U.S. -- the president acts as both head of state and head of government. In these countries, the president's dual role is extremely powerful, so a system of checks and balances is typically employed.
-- Glenn McDonald
Study.com: The U.S. President vs. Britain's Prime Minister: Role Similarities & Differences
DW: The role of the German president
BBC: The Work of a backbench MP
Wisegeek: What is the Difference Between a President and a Prime Minister?