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Head of state

A head of state (or chief of state) is the public persona who officially represents the national unity and legitimacy of a sovereign state. Depending on the country's form of government and separation of powers, the head of state may be a ceremonial figurehead or concurrently the head of government. In a parliamentary system, such as India, the head of state usually has mostly ceremonial powers, with a separate head of government. However in some parliamentary systems, like South Africa, there is an executive president that is both head of state and head of government. Likewise, in some parliamentary systems the head of state is not the head of government, but still has significant powers, for example Morocco. In contrast, a semi-presidential system, such as France, has both heads of state and government as the de facto leaders of the nation (in practice they divide the leadership of the nation among themselves). Meanwhile, in presidential systems such as the United States, the head of state is also the head of government.

An independent nation state normally has a head of state, and determines the extent of its head's executive powers of government or formal representational functions. In terms of protocol: the head of a sovereign, independent state is usually identified as the person who, according to that state's constitution, is the reigning monarch, in the case of a monarchy; or the president, in the case of a republic.

In contrast, the only contact the president of Ireland has with the Irish government is through a formal briefing session given by the taoiseach (head of government) to the president. However, he or she has no access to documentation and all access to ministers goes through the Department of the Taoiseach. The president does, however, hold limited reserve powers, such as referring a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, which are used under the president's discretion.

Other countries evolve into something akin to a semi-presidential system or indeed a full presidential system. Weimar Germany, for example, in its constitution provided for a popularly elected president with theoretically dominant executive powers that were intended to be exercised only in emergencies, and a cabinet appointed by him from the Reichstag, which was expected, in normal circumstances, to be answerable to the Reichstag. Initially, the president was merely a symbolic figure with the Reichstag dominant; however, persistent political instability, in which governments often lasted only a few months, led to a change in the power structure of the republic, with the president's emergency powers called increasingly into use to prop up governments challenged by critical or even hostile Reichstag votes. By 1932, power had shifted to such an extent that the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, was able to dismiss a chancellor and select his own person for the job, even though the outgoing chancellor possessed the confidence of the Reichstag while the new chancellor did not. Subsequently, President von Hindenburg used his power to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor without consulting the Reichstag.

Another complication exists with South Africa, in which the president is in fact elected by the National Assembly (legislature) and is thus similar, in principle, to a head of government in a parliamentary system but is also, in addition, recognized as the head of state. The offices of president of Nauru and president of Botswana are similar in this respect to the South African presidency.

At home, heads of state are expected to render luster to various occasions by their presence, such as by attending artistic or sports performances or competitions (often in a theatrical honor box, on a platform, on the front row, at the honours table), expositions, national day celebrations, dedication events, military parades and war remembrances, prominent funerals, visiting different parts of the country and people from different walks of life, and at times performing symbolic acts such as cutting a ribbon, groundbreaking, ship christening, laying the first stone. Some parts of national life receive their regular attention, often on an annual basis, or even in the form of official patronage.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which codified longstanding custom, operates under the presumption that the head of a diplomatic mission (i.e. ambassador or nuncio) of the sending state is accredited to the head of state of the receiving state. The head of state accredits (i.e. formally validates) his or her country's ambassadors (or rarer equivalent diplomatic mission chiefs, such as high commissioner or papal nuncio) through sending formal a Letter of Credence (and a Letter of Recall at the end of a tenure) to other heads of state and, conversely, receives the letters of their foreign counterparts. Without that accreditation, the chief of the diplomatic mission cannot take up their role and receive the highest diplomatic status. The role of a head of state in this regard, is codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations from 1961, which (as of 2017) 191 sovereign states has ratified.

Another example occurred when, in the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, the governor-general unexpectedly dismissed the prime minister in order to break a stalemate between the House of Representatives and Senate over money bills. The governor-general issued a public statement saying he felt it was the only solution consistent with the constitution, his oath of office, and his responsibilities, authority, and duty as governor-general. A letter from the queen's private secretary at the time, Martin Charteris, confirmed that the only person competent to commission an Australian prime minister was the governor-general and it would not be proper for the monarch to personally intervene in matters that the Constitution Act so clearly places within the governor-general's jurisdiction.

In exceptional situations, such as war, occupation, revolution or a coup d'etat, constitutional institutions, including the symbolically crucial head of state, may be reduced to a figurehead or be suspended in favor of an emergency office (such as the original Roman dictator) or eliminated by a new "provisionary" regime, such as a collective of the junta type, or removed by an occupying force, such as a military governor (an early example being the Spartan Harmost).