In politics, a figurehead is a person who holds de jure an important (often supremely powerful) title or office yet de facto executes little actual power, most commonly limited by convention rather than law. but in some cases may have little power even by law. The metaphor derives from the carved figurehead at the prow of a sailing ship. Commonly cited figureheads include Queen Elizabeth II, who is Queen of sixteen Commonwealth realms and head of the Commonwealth, but has no power over the nations in which she is not head of state and does not exercise power in her own realms on her own initiative. Other figureheads are the Emperor of Japan, the King of Sweden, or presidents in some parliamentary republics, such as the President of India, President of Israel, President of Bangladesh, President of Greece, President of Germany, President of Pakistan, and the President of the People's Republic of China (without CPC General Secretary and Chairman of CMC posts).
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. Sometimes a figurehead with reserve powers 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
Conversely, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, also largely considered 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 derogatory term
The word can also have more sinister overtones, and refer to a powerful leader, who should be exercising full authority, who is actually being controlled by a more powerful figure behind the throne.