Figureheads of State

By: /
July 11, 2012

In name, they are one thing. In function, they are something much different. Here is OpenCanada’s list of 10 heads of state who are more figureheads than real leaders.

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

Queen Elizabeth II is the constitutional monarch of 16 states, from Tuvalu to Canada. Mostly known for her steadfast dedication to her country(-ies), never giving interviews, her unchangeable hair style, and her divorcing progeny, Her Majesty should perhaps be better known for her tech savvy. During his state visit to the U.K., U.S. President Barack Obama presented Her Majesty with an iPod. She is also said to be addicted to the Nintendo Wii (Nintendo eventually sent her a gold-plated Wii).

Times when she’s mattered: Queen Elizabeth is patron of more than 600 charities and organizations and has hosted more than 90 state banquets during her reign. She signed the repatriation of Canada’s Constitution and launched the British Monarchy website. She also introduced the concept of walkabouts, encouraging British royals to better connect with their various countries.

Popularity: In 2006, Queen Elizabeth had 85-per-cent support in the United Kingdom. In contrast, PM Tony Blair had a personal approval rating of 28 per cent at the time.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

Known affectionately as Daisy, Margrethe speaks five languages, is an accomplished painter and costume designer, and is famous for her refusal to use cellphones or the internet, as well as for her chain-smoking habit. She was unable to give up her cigarettes even when the Danish parliament announced strict rules regarding smoking, though the Royal Court released a statement saying that Her Majesty would never again be seen smoking in public.

Times when she’s mattered: Queen Margrethe was born in 1940, mere weeks after the Nazi occupation of Denmark, at which time the Danish people saw her birth as a ray of hope. She holds private audiences with seven of her subjects every two weeks during winter, allowing them to discuss any subject they choose. She writes her own speeches and attends weekly government meetings.

Popularity: Queen Margrethe had an 81-per-cent approval rating in 2009. (It is sometimes said that had Margrethe not been queen, she could have easily been elected president). The PM at the time, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, had a 47-per-cent approval rating.

King Juan Carlos I of Spain

King Juan Carlos of Spain is an amateur radio operator and a keen sailor. He recently got into trouble with the Spanish press for going on a £27,000 elephant-hunting trip to Botswana at a time when Spain faces a deep recession.

Times when he’s mattered: King Juan Carlos was instrumental in overseeing Spain’s transition from dictatorship under Franco to parliamentary monarchy, much to the disappointment of some more conservative elements who wanted him to keep the authoritarian state in place.

Popularity: King Juan Carlos had 81-per-cent support in 2008. The PM at the time, José Zapatero, had an approval rating of roughly 60 per cent.

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

Michael Higgins, a politician, poet, broadcaster, and sociologist, assumed office in 2011 for a seven-year term. Shortly after that, he wrote to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ask them to decrease his salary from €325,000 to about €250,000. He has published three anthologies of poetry, although his verse has been described as “strikingly poor.”

Times when he’s mattered: President Higgins has only been in power for a short time. Nonetheless, he has been a staunch defender of the arts, and has called homophobia and racism in Ireland a “blight on society.”

Popularity: Higgins gained 56.8 per cent of the vote during his election in 2011, considerably more than the six other candidates. In contrast, PM Enda Kenny’s party, Fine Gael, won 36.1 per cent of the popular vote.

Shimon Peres, President of Israel

Shimon Peres assumed office in 2007 for a seven-year term. A politician with a 66-year career, Peres was a member of the Knesset almost continuously from 1959 to 2006 and served twice as prime minister. He, Yasser Arafat, and Yitzhak Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.”

Times when he’s mattered: Even in the mainly ceremonial role of president, Peres still makes headlines. A few months after assuming the presidency, he became the first Israeli politician to address the legislature of a Muslim country when he spoke before the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. He went on to receive a knighthood at Buckingham Palace, and was granted the American Medal of Freedom.

Popularity: President Peres had 81-per-cent support in 2012. PM Benjamin Netanyahu had an approval rating of 51 per cent after his domestically popular trip to the U.S. in May.

King Harald V of Norway

King Harald of Norway is an Oxford graduate who represented his country in the yachting events of three Olympic Games. In 1968, he married a commoner named Sonja, after being in a secret relationship with her for nine years. His father, Olav V, only approved the match after Harald threatened never to marry at all if he wasn’t allowed to marry Sonja. As Harald was the only heir to the throne, this would have meant the end to his family’s rule in Norway.

Times when he’s mattered: King Harald’s birth marked the first time in 567 years that a Norwegian prince was actually born in Norway. In addition to their usual duties, King Harald and Queen Sonja visit a county in Norway and one of Oslo’s districts every year. The king heads the Council of State every Friday.

Popularity: King Harald had 93-per-cent support in 2012. Meanwhile, PM Jens Stoltenberg had a 94-per-cent approval rating after the 2011 massacre in Norway.


King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden

When he assumed the crown in 1973, Carl Gustaf chose the simple title “King of Sweden” instead of the traditional “By the Grace of God King of Swedes, the Goths and the Wends.” This is indicative of the king’s motto: “For Sweden - With the times.” This modern bent was also on display in Carl Gustaf’s choice of spouse (Queen Silvia was briefly a flight attendant; ABBA’s Dancing Queen was first sung for her), the groundbreaking decision to introduce absolute primogeniture (Sweden was the first recognized monarchy to do so), and Crown Princess Victoria’s choice of spouse (Prince Daniel used to be a gym owner; no famous songs have been sung for him to date).

Times when he’s mattered: Worldwide, King Carl Gustaf is perhaps best known for handing out the Nobel Prizes each year. He is a great patron of the Scout movement, is the long-time chairman of the Swedish World Wildlife Fund, and visited many countries as part of Royal Technology Missions meant to promote technological innovation.

Popularity: After the publication of a book detailing the king’s alleged affairs and visits to strip clubs, he had a 44-per-cent approval rating (down from 64 per cent a year earlier). PM Fredrik Reinfeldt, in contrast, had an approval rating of 63 per cent in 2010.

Joachim Gauck, President of Germany

The Wall Street Journal has described Joachim Gauck, who was elected president in 2012, as “the last of a breed: the leaders of protest movements behind the Iron Curtain who went on to lead their countries after 1989.” A Protestant pastor, Gauck was a co-founder of the New Forum movement in East Germany, which contributed to the downfall of the communist East German government. After 1989, he went on to serve in the Bundestag as the first Federal Commissioner of the Stasi Archives, gaining the nickname “Stasi hunter” and a reputation as a fierce pro-democracy activist.

Times when he’s mattered: Joachim Gauck has not been in office long enough to make his mark as president, but Der Speigelpredicts that, “he is likely to take the entire political class to task.”

Popularity: President Gauck had a 69-per-cent approval rating in February 2012. At the same time, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats had an approval rating of 38 per cent.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands

Beatrix is the latest in a long line of regnant queens of the Netherlands. Indeed, when her son, Willem-Alexander, assumes the throne, he will be the first king of the Netherlands since 1890. Alongside her mother and sisters, Beatrix famously took refuge in Canada during the Second World War (the Dutch government still sends its thanks in the form of tulips). Her sister, Princess Margriet, was born in Ottawa, but the Canadian government temporarily declared the maternity ward of Ottawa Civic Hospital extra-territorial so that the newborn princess would not automatically gain Canadian citizenship at birth.

Times when she’s mattered: Queen Beatrix courted great controversy when she became engaged to German diplomat Claus von Amsberg, a former member of the Hitler Youth. Nonetheless, after their marriage, Prince Claus became one of the most popular members of the royal family. Compared to her largely ceremonial role at home, Queen Beatrix has relatively great latitude in foreign affairs. At her request, a Dutch embassy was opened in Jordan in 1994.

Popularity: Queen Beatrix had 81-per-cent support in 2012. Meanwhile, only 33 per cent of Dutch approved of PM Mark Rutte’s austerity measures.

Akihito, Emperor of Japan

Akihito is the 125th emperor of Japan, the latest in an unbroken line of emperors beginning in 660 BC. In Japan, people never refer to Emperor Akihito by his given name. Instead, they call him “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor.” According to the 1947 Constitution of Japan, the emperor is “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” making Akihito the first Japanese monarch enthroned as a symbol and not a living god.

Times when he’s mattered: Though the powers of the emperor were severely constrained under the 1947 Constitution, Akihito has issued statements of remorse regarding Japan’s past behaviour to several Asian countries. He was widely praised for giving his first-ever pre-recorded televised message in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Popularity: Japan’s royal family had approval ratings of 60-70 per cent in 2000, while the cabinet at the time had a 19-per-cent approval rating.

Also in the series


The Climate Stalemate

Multilateral negotiations on climate change have failed. Is it time to call for an end to the charade?

Seven Myths About International Relations

From a united Europe to American exceptionalism.