President is a title held by many leaders of organizations, companies, universities, and countries. Etymologically, a "president" is one who presides, who sits in leadership (from Latin prae- "before" + sedere "to sit"). Originally, the term usually referred to the presiding officer of a ceremony or meeting (i.e. chairman); but today it most commonly refers to an official with executive powers.
Among other things, President is today a common title for the head of state of a republic, whether popularly elected, chosen by the legislature or a special electoral college. It is also often adopted by dictators.
The bulk of this article is dedicated to this usage by heads of state. For more on other kinds of presidents, see Non-Governmental Presidents, below. For more on the usage of term "president", see President (history of the term).
Though there had been several republican countries in the past, it was the United States of America which popularized the position of President when the post was created as the new republic's Head of State in 1789. As South America became independent from Spanish rule, so too did these new republics adopt the title of "President" for their leaders, creating constitutions purposely similar to that of the US.
The first European president was the President of France, a post created in the Second Republic of 1848. (The First Republic had harkened back to the ancient Roman Republic by appointing several consuls at its head.) The first Asian president was the President of the Republic of China (1912), and the first African President was the President of Liberia created in 1848.
Today, the majority of countries have a President as their Head of State.
Presidents in democratic countries
In states with what is called a Presidential system of government, the President is also the head of government, as well as the head of state. Countries with such a system include the United States and most nations in Latin America. In this system the office of President is very powerful, both in practice and theory. In the United States, the President is indirectly elected by the U.S. Electoral College made up of electors chosen by voters in the presidential election. In most U.S. states, each elector is committed to voting for a specified candidate determined by the popular vote in each state, so that the people, in voting for each elector, is in effect voting for the candidate. However, in several close U.S. elections (notably 1876, 1888, 2000), while one candidate received the most popular votes, another candidate managed to win more electoral votes in the Electoral College and so won the presidency.
Other states have what is called a Parliamentary system of government, in which the President is only head of state, and the Prime Minister is the head of government. Countries with such systems include India, Ireland and Italy. Under such a system, executive authority is often vested in the president, with the Government governing in his or her name, producing phrases such as "His/Her Excellency's Government" in some formal state documentation. However a president may also possess some reserve powers or powers which can be exercised by the President without formal advice (ie, binding instruction) from 'His' or 'Her' Governnment.
In parliamentary systems, the president's role is usually primarily ceremonial. However, due the combination of constitutionally established "reserve powers," protocol (which may require them to formally chair cabinet meetings and/or have access to all cabinet memoranda), and his or her role as the person in whose name executive authority is vested, often gives the president a degree of informal influence not often publicly realised.
An example of this influence is the following: between 1870 and 1940, and again from 1945 to 1958, France operated a classic parliamentary system of government, with power in a cabinet chosen by the National Assembly, and a largely though not totally symbolic president; in 1877, President Mac-Mahon showed that his office was constitutionally significant when he dismissed the then prime minister before calling new elections, in the hope of achieving a royalist majority to restore the monarchy (the plan failed).
"President of Government" in parliamentary systems
Some countries with parliamentary systems use the term 'president' in connection with the head of parliamentary government, often as 'President of the Government', 'President of the Council of Ministers' or 'President of the Executive Council'.
However, such an official is explicitly not the president of the country. Rather, he or she is called a president in an older sense of the word to denote the fact that he or she heads the cabinet. A separate head of state generally exists in their country that instead serves as the president or monarch of the country.
Thus, such leaders are really premiers, and to avoid confusion are often described simply as 'prime minister' when being mentioned internationally.
There are several examples for this kind of presidency:
A third system is the semi-presidential system, also known as the French system, in which like the Parliamentary system there is both a President and a Prime Minister, but unlike the Parliamentary system the President may have significant day-to-day power. When his party controls the majority of seats in the National Assembly the president can operate closely with the parliament and prime minister, and work towards a common agenda. When the National Assembly is controlled by opponents of the President however, the president can find himself marginalized with the opposition party prime minister exercising most of the power. Though the prime minister remains an appointee of the president, the president must obey the rules of parliament, and select a leader from the house's majority holding party. Thus, sometimes the president and PM can be friends, sometimes bitter rivals. This situation is known as cohabitation. The French semi-presidential system, which can be considered a hybrid between the first two, was developed at the beginning of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle. It is used (of course) in France, Russia, and several other post-colonial countries which have emulated the French model.
Only a tiny minority of modern republics do not have a head of state; examples include:
Switzerland, where the headship of state is collectively vested in the seven-member Swiss Federal Council despite the fact the system includes a President of the Confederation. The President is a member of the Federal Council elected by the Swiss Federal Assembly (the Swiss Parliament) for a year; and the President is merely primus inter pares (first among equals). Nevertheless, on the international stage he or she is treated as head of state. Letters of Credence appointing ambassadors are formally addressed to him or her by other heads of state.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a three-member Presidency, each of which are elected by a different constituent nation. The position of the President of the Presidency rotates between the three members.
San Marino, which has two Captains Regent elected by the Great and General Council.
Presidents in dictatorships
In dictatorships, the title is frequently taken by self-appointed and/or military-backed leaders. Such is the case in many African states; Idi Amin in Uganda, for example. Sometimes the title is even extended into the more presumptuous form of "president for life." In some communist states, the head of the Communist party was also given the presidency, such as Fidel Castro in Cuba and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. On other occasions in the Soviet Union, the real power was exercised by the General Secretary of the Communist Party, with some local notable holding the presidency.
President for Life is a title assumed by some dictators to ensure that their authority or legitimacy is never questioned.
The first well-known incident of a leader extending his term indefinitely was Roman dictator Julius Caesar, who made himself "Perpetual Dictator" (commonly mistranslated as 'Dictator-for-life') in 45 BC. His actions would later be mimicked by the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte who was appointed "First Consul for life" in 1802.
Ironically, most leaders who proclaim themselves President for Life do not in fact successfully serve a life term. Even so presidents like Alexandre Sabès dit Pétion, Rafael Carrera, Josip Broz Tito and François Duvalier died in office.
The only living officially proclaimed president for life is Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan.
Many of them do not proclaim it officially "for life" even if it is evident that they are, like Fidel Castro of Cuba.
As the country's head of state, in most countries the president is entitled to certain symbolic honors, as well as luxury perks that come with the office. For example, most of the world's presidents have a special residence; often a lavish mansion or palace. The President of the United States for example resides in the famous White House.
As well as an official residence, in some nations the Presidency brings with it certain symbols of office, such as an official uniform, decorations, or other accessories. Perhaps the most common presidential symbol are the presidential sashes worn by the presidents of Latin America. In these countries, the sash is a symbol of the presidency's continuity, and presenting the sash to the new president is a key part of the inauguration ceremony.
The powers, functions and functioning of presidents were reviewed by six international experts for Australia's Republic Advisory Committee in 1993. Reports by among others Professor Klaus Von Beyme (on Germany), A.G Noorani (on India), Jim Duffy (on Ireland) and Sir Ellis Clarke (on Trinidad and Tobago) outline the role of various presidencies. The full report is called An Australian Republic: The Options - The Appendices (ISBN 0644325895)
President is also used as a title in some non-governmental organizations. The head of a university or non-profit corporation, particularly in the United States of America, is often known as president. President is also a title in many corporations. In some cases the president acts as chief operating officer under the direction of the chief executive officer.
In university systems with multiple independent campuses, the relationship between the roles of president and chancellor can become quite complicated. See chancellor.
Many other organizations, clubs, and committees, both political and non-political are led by Presidents as well. Examples can vary from the President of a political party, to the president of a chamber of commerce, to the president of a high school chess club.
In French legal terminology, the president of a court consisting of multiple judges is the foremost judge; he chairs the meeting of the court and directs the debates (and this thus addressed as "Mr President", Monsieur le Président, or appropriate feminine forms). In general, a court comprises several chambers, each with its own president; thus the most senior of these is called the "first president" (as in: "the First President of the Court of Cassation is the most senior judge in France").