- 1: the figure on a ship's bow
- 2: a head or chief in name only
In politics, a figurehead is a person who holds de jure an important title or office yet de facto executes little actual power, most commonly limited by convention rather than law. The metaphor derives from the carved figurehead at the prow of a sailing ship. Commonly cited figureheads include Queen Elizabeth II's role as Queen of the United Kingdom, sixteen Commonwealth Realms and head of the British Commonwealth overall; she has an important office title, but no power over the nations in which she is not head of state. The Queen also holds all powers of state in her kingdoms, but rarely exercises them. Other figureheads are the Emperor Akihito of Japan, or presidents in some parliamentary republics, such as the President of Israel, President of Bangladesh, President of Greece, President of Germany and the President of the People's Republic of China (without CPC General Secretary post).
While the authority of a figurehead is in practice generally symbolic or ceremonial, public opinion, respect for the office or the office holder and access to high levels of government can give them significant influence on events. In those systems of government where the head of state is in practice a figurehead, they are also generally the titular commanders in chief of the nation's defence forces.
Sometimes a figurehead can be exploited in times of emergency. For example, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used the figurehead President of India to issue unilateral decrees that allowed her to bypass parliament when it no longer supported her. 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. Conversely, King Juan Carlos of Spain, also a figurehead, had in 1981 a key role in defending the newborn Spanish democracy and foiling the attempted coup d'état, known as "23-F".
As a derogative term
The tendency of this word to drift, like many words that are in a strong process of changed meanings, into the pejorative is beginning to make it unsuitable to apply to a head of state with limited constitutional authority, such that its use may become increasingly inappropriate in referring to monarchs and presidents in parliamentary systems.