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. 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, President of Pakistan, 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.
And, more than 20 years later, the same King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy played a key role in the dismission of Benito Mussolini in 1943. Since the abolition of monarchy in Italy and the establishment of a republic in 1948, the Italian President assumed most of the ceremonial functions of the previous kings; however, the Italian President retains large powers in appointing a prime minister of his choice when in parliament there's no clear majority, creating a so-called "president's cabinet". For example, the actual (2013) Prime Minister of Italy, Sen Mario Monti, was not elected but appointed by the Italian President (Giorgio Napolitano) as a lifetime-senator and then as Prime Minister of the country.
As a derogative term
The word can also have more sinister overtones, and refer to a powerless leader who should be exercising full authority, yet is actually being controlled by a more powerful figure behind the throne.
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.