Generally, what is the difference between a President and a Prime Minister?

I was always confused by this because I’m American, where we only have a President. I’ve been told the closest thing we have to a PM here is either the White House Chief of Staff (who almost NO ONE knows) or the Speaker of the House (more in the News).

But lets fly over to Canada or England or Japan, who have PMs but no President.

Then in Russia, we have both, who must be both close in power since Putin can take either job and install his toady in the other one.

But there’s other countries around the world that seem to have both, but seem to have equal or nor equal recognition and power.

Does it vary that much from country to country?? Is it simply countries have either no President, a weak President or a strong President, with/without no PM, a weak PM, or a stronger PM?

How does Premier fit into all this?

The power of even a single country’s president and prime minister can ebb and flow depending on the political circumstances. In France, the prime minister is much more powerful and important during periods of “cohabitation,” when the president’s party does not have a majority in the legislature.


Presidents are elected, and embody the Executive. They are separate and independent from the Legislature. Presidents are responsible to the electorate for their actions, and the Legislature’s role is to directly check the President’s actions, not hold them to account, except in exceptional circumstances through impeachment.

Prime Ministers are not elected for the position of PM. Normally they are elected as representatives first, and get the PM job later. As such they normally straddle the Executive and the Legislature. They don’t embody the Executive, but act as first-among-equals.

They are responsible to the Legislature, not the electorate directly, although there’s a lot of overlap between Legislature and electorate obviously. The Legislature can hire and fire PMs at will. Impeachment is a power that died out in the UK centuries ago, for example, as there’s far easier ways to remove officials.

There are always minor differences between countries in these broad categories, though. For example in some Scandinavian countries, the representatives who become members of the Executive must resign their Legislature seats.

As for places like Russia and France, they are what is called ‘semi-presidential’. The President is the embodiment of the Executive again, and responsible to the electorate, but the PM (and wider cabinet) serves as the bridge between Executive and Legislature. Depending on the country, the PM is responsible to the President or to the Legislature.

Does that make sense?
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Missed the edit window - wanted to add that although in some Scandinavian countries the representatives must quit their representative seats when the join the Executive, they are still responsible to the Legislature and attend debates there.
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Generally speaking: the PM has executive power (head of government). They also have a president, or in monarchies a king/queen/etc. who has ceremonial powers (head of state). There are some exceptions where the president has more real power than the PM (semi-presidential system). These countries include France, Russia, Lithuania, and a few in Eastern Europe and Africa. Countries like USA, Mexico, and most of South America had a president who serves both roles. Otherwise, one difference is that the sole president is elected through direct or indirect (Electoral College) means rather than through parliamentary approval.

The powers of a Prime Minister are broadly similar to those of a US president, but the big difference is that a Prime Minister never needs to deal with a legislature controlled by the opposition party. By definition, the Prime Minister’s party controls a majority of the legislature, or at least a combination of parties that broadly agree on the big issues does. If the Prime Minister can’t command that sort of support, then he ceases to be Prime Minister.

And Prime Ministers typically serve 2, 3, 5, or 7 years.

The White House Chief of Staff is in no way similar to a prime minister.

And then you have countries such as Spain, which don’t differentiate the two. In the case of Spain, the Head of State is the king or queen, and the Presidente who heads the Executive Branch is selected by Parliament; in fact, just last week we changed Prez without having elections, because a “censorship vote” proposing a different one succeeded. The run-up to the vote already included the negotiations on who gets which Ministries, so now it’s basically a matter of paperwork until the government changes. There’s other countries where the President or Prime Minister is both Head of State and head of the Executive Branch, thelurkinghorror mentioned a bunch of them.

English history is full of power struggles between the throne and the barons … during times of a weak English monarch, the barons would gather and impose a minister upon the monarch to advise … and when this included consent this minister was considered the monarch’s prime minister …

Come the late 18th Century, the revolutionaries in the American Colonies were of a mind to do things differently from the English … including giving the new nation’s chief executive the rather demeaning title of “President” and permanently limiting the powers of the office … even today the President is somewhat at the beck-and-call of Congress …

Malden Capell explanation above is wonderful … the English Prime Minister is equivalent to the USA’s Speaker of the House, both are elected by the People to the legislature, and then the legislature elects them to their position of leadership … it’s been over 300 years since the English monarch vetoed an act of Parliament, but I believe that power still exists for QEII de jure … just that the “advise and consent” role has become more of a “just go do it” and the Prime Minister is the de facto chief executive today in England …

One is an actual executive and the other is a ceremonial figure-head?

Closest thing we have here in the States are the Treasurer and the Secretary of the Treasury.

Imagine a situation in the US.
The President starts exercising his powers only on the advice of the leader of the majority party in Congress. In time it becomes an accepted convention. And then later is got formalised in law.

This is true although most English language press I’ve read remarking on Spanish politics refers to the President of the Government as Prime Minister.

The US President is President of the United States as a nation - Head of State.
The Spanish ‘President’ is merely president of the Executive.
The British Prime Minister is similar to the Spanish ‘President’
In Spain and Britain, the Head of State is a monarch, but it could equally be a President as in Germany. In parliamentary states, the Head of State isn’t normally a hands-on, day-to-day active political participant.

Another way to view it:

Picture a Venn diagram for the classic idea of Separation of Powers. In the US, the three circles - Executive, Judiciary, Legislature - are discrete from each other, bar some specific but important overlaps (e.g. President veto, Congressional impeachment, judicial oversight)

For somewhere parliamentary like the UK, the circles of Legislature and Executive overlap slightly. In that overlapping portion resides the Cabinet. It Executive, but is composed of members of the Legisature.

Outside the overlap, on the Executive side, is the Civil Service and the monarch. On the Legislative side, it’s all members of the Lords and Commons not in the Cabinet.

Hell, a few years ago, in the UK, even the Judiciary overlapped with the Legislature and Executive in the office of Lord Chancellor and the Law Lords. No longer, though.

No. Just no. The British Prime Minister is the head of the gouvernement, not just the leader of the government in the Commons. The PM selects and chairs the Cabinet, which has final say not just in the legislative agenda, but also the operation of the executive branch of the government. The US Speaker has no equivalent powers. The US Speaker is more akin to the Government House Leader in parliamentary systems.

The PM is not elected by the “People” - she’s elected by the voters in her particular electoral district, one of 650 Commons seats. So at best, she’s elected to the Commons by a majority of 1/650th of the population of the UK.

No. The PM is appointed by the Queen, based on the Queen’s assessment of which party leader has the support of a majority of the Commons.

No, the Prime Minister has full legal authority to exercise the executive powers, as a result of the Queen appointing her to office as First Lord of the Treasury.

Which is why I referred to ours using the Spanish word in italics: because the way you refer to them is very strange to me, and the way we refer to them is very strange to you. News media from Spain refers to the British head of government as el premier británico.

Throughout history, different countries encounter different problems with their leaders, depending on the individual personalities and situations. In reaction, countries modify the definitions of their top offices.

In addition, leaders modify offices to give themselves more power, when they think they can get away with it.

So it ends up that different countries have somewhat different leadership structures, even if they start out using the same model.

France used to be prime-ministerial in nature, but de Gaulle had the Constitution changed to be semi-presidential due to a perceived instability in French governments under the old structure.
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It’s a matter of language usage in each jurisdiction. “Premier” is derived from French, meaning “First.” It was used for the leader of a government, because that leader was the first minister of the Crown.

Since the British model, and some Commonwealth realms like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, don’t define the post of prime minister in the constitutions, there can be considerable variation in the term used to refer to them.

Historically, “premier” tended to be used as an alternative to “prime minister”. You sometimes find this usage to refer to the heads of the British and Canadian governments in 19th century documents.

Nowadays, “Prime Minister” is generally used for the leader of the national government.

In Canada, “Premier” is the customary term in English for the leaders of the provincial governments, even if that’s not their formal title. (“Premier ministre” is used in French for the national and provincial leaders.)

In my province, for example, the Premier’s official title is “President of the Executive Council,” a similar usage to the Spanish usage Nava mentions, but he’s always referred to as the Premier.

In Canada, the term “First Ministers” is used to refer collectively to the Prime Minister and provincial Premiers.

Nava, a question, if I may.

Is it customary to refer to the leader of the government as the “President of Spain”? Or as the “President of the Government of Spain”?