Monarchy’s Durable Relevance

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Monarchy is the oldest form of government. Authentic historical monarchies – based on constitutional principles, committed to upholding the rule of law and providing a sense of nationhood, cohesion and continuity – do not cease to thrive in today’s world. “It is a great error to see them as storybook relics of bygone days with no part to play in 21st-century societies,” argued Lord David Alton in his comprehensive essay “Royal families and monarchies in the 21st century” published in GIS on July 20, 2016.

In Europe alone, as many as 12 monarchies remain – ranging from the small principalities of Andorra, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco and the State of Vatican City, to Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Spain. Also, the United Kingdom, where Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 93rd birthday on April 21, 2019, shows no desire to replace its monarchy with a republic. Most of the monarchies in Europe are elements of constitutional systems, where the monarch does not influence the politics of the state. In Liechtenstein, the prince retains a significant say on matters of governing based on democratic legitimation. Prince Albert of Monaco also has an important political role.

Dynasties play a role in the turbulent transition facing Arab societies. Seven monarchs play very active, in some cases pivotal, roles in Middle East politics. In Asia, Japan, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, Bhutan and Cambodia are constitutional monarchies. China’s last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was abolished in 1912 when the Republic of China was established, but in Japan, the official enthronement of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne took place only yesterday, on October 22, 2019.

How can one explain the staying power of this form of government?


Royal families in Europe help uphold constitutional order and provide a sense of historical continuity. Some go further and are real drivers for their countries’ prosperity, stability and safety.

Historically, the most important dynasty in Europe was the Habsburgs. In the report “The lessons from the last 100 years of Central Europe’s history,” GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein described the sense of duty and farsightedness of the last Habsburg emperor. The last crown prince of Austria-Hungary went far beyond that mission in the 20th and 21st centuries. Archduke Otto von Habsburg, who passed away in 2011 at 98 years of age, never ascended to the throne but provided significant encouragement to Christian democracy in Europe. As a young man, he was among the few who recognized the danger presented by national socialism in its early stages. Designated by Hitler as a dangerous enemy of the Third Reich, he spent the war years in the United States incessantly lobbying for Austria’s independence and preventing Central Europe from falling under the Soviet Union’s yoke.

In the postwar decades, the Archduke was an important advocate of a unified Europe as an author, speaker, political advisor and president of the influential International Pan-European Union (1973-2004). For 20 years, he represented Bavaria as one of the most prominent members of the European Parliament. Today, the Archduke is counted – along with Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi – among the architects of the European idea.

Queen Elizabeth II

The centrality of the British royal family in holding together a fractious and often disunited kingdom is indisputable, asserted Lord Alton in his 2017 essay dedicated to the Windsor dynasty. “Transient British governments and prime ministers come and go, but since February 1952, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II has provided the United Kingdom with continuity and stability,” he wrote.

George VI and his wife, Elizabeth, heroically encouraged wartime Britain and – through their daughter, Elizabeth – gave the nation a head of state who has been a public servant “devoted beyond comparison,” as Lord Alton saw it. Queen Elizabeth II could justifiably say that during her reign, she has seen it all – including 14 prime ministers, from Sir Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson. After an election, or following the resignation of a prime minister, she has the right to appoint whomever she believes can command a majority in the House of Commons. And the queen has a special relationship with whoever holds that high office.

Although a constitutional monarch who remains politically neutral, the queen holds a weekly audience with the prime minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on government matters.

The delicate balance that emerged from England’s Civil War (1642-1651) and the restoration of a constitutional monarchy is that while the sovereign is head of state, the power to make and enact legislation resides with an elected parliament. As “head of the nation,” the queen assumes constitutional and ceremonial duties that are a focus for national identity, generating pride and continuity. The monarch’s role also has a religious dimension as head of the Church of England.

King Felipe VI and King Philippe

The same author pointed to the Spanish monarchy as another striking example of how a royal family, with all its imperfections, can be a source of social cohesion. When, following fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, Juan Carlos I became king, his authority and strong relationship within the Spanish armed forces saved the country from a military coup and preserved parliamentary democracy. After 40 years on the throne, the king, following some unfortunate entanglements, abdicated in favor of the next generation. His son, Felipe VI, has since been striving to inspire national unity in a country riven by separatist movements – most notably the Basques and the Catalans.

In Belgium, King Philippe, who ascended the throne in 2013 following the abdication of his father, performs a similarly unifying role. In the two countries in one that is Belgium, such a service is often indispensable.

Prince Hans Adam II

Liechtenstein, in turn, is living proof that a royal family can also offer top-notch governance when the constitutional framework provides room for that. The principality, wrote Lord Alton, “with a landmass of 62 square miles, may be Lilliputian in size, but there is nothing puny about its economy,” as it affords its 37,000 citizens one of the highest standards of living on the globe.

Prince Hans Adam II, who traces his antecedents to the Holy Roman Empire, has been the reigning head of state since 1989, with many day-to-day powers, now vested in his son Alois, hereditary prince of Liechtenstein. Aside from model stewardship of the market-driven economic system, the ruling family has presided over the development of democratic and judicial institutions. Liechtenstein has an elected parliament, the Landtag, but also a system of direct democracy through referenda: citizens, parliament or the prince can initiate popular votes. In 2003, Hans Adam II prompted changes to the 1921 Constitution, which were endorsed in a referendum; in 2012, in another vote, a substantial majority of the electorate rejected proposals to remove the prince’s right of veto.

Hans Adam II has used his family’s popularity and the powers vested in him to protect the independence of the judiciary and to guard against shortsighted populist decisions. Lord Alton wrote:

With its determination to uphold the rule of law and guard against interference in the courts by political interests in parliament, the princely house of Liechtenstein could teach some leaders of Brobdingnagian-sized states a thing or two.


Monarchies have also been playing their part in the troubled transition facing Arab societies in the Middle East – for good and ill.

The House of Saud

The Saudi royal family numbers in the thousands, and the king holds very substantial political power. Currently, GIS expert Zvi Mazel wrote, many Saudi citizens, the rest of the Gulf and the world are expectantly watching Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old deputy crown prince and likely future king, as a possible agent of change in the principalist kingdom.

The crown prince, often referred to as MbS, has taken modest steps toward social reforms and launched a radical overhaul of Saudi Arabia’s economic and institutional foundations. One can assume that the father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and son are working in tandem and share the same vision of the kingdom’s future.

In April 2016, MbS unveiled an ambitious blueprint for reform, dubbed “Vision 2030,” to diversify the nation’s economy and make it one of the biggest in the world. Ambassador Mazel described this royal “revolution from above” here. As is often the case, deep structural reform can only come in such a way, but it is a delicate process that risks triggering reactions from various quarters, observed an anonymous GIS author. To avoid such problems, King Salman and the crown prince had moved to curb the role of the Saudi oligarchy, including members of the royal family – a step that did not endear them to the affected parties. Then came the mysterious murder of a journalist critical of the kingdom’s new policies at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

The crown prince forcefully condemned the killing and King Salman shook up the intelligence service, suspected of having masterminded the crime. Yet MbS’s public image has suffered some damage from allegations related to the sordid affair.

The Saudi monarch and his son are also tasked with redefining the kingdom’s position on the regional and international stage. “If they succeed, Saudi Arabia has the potential to play a pivotal role in stabilizing the Middle East. If, however, the kingdom continues to stall and insists on following the customary pattern, it will add to the region’s problems and undermine its own stability,” warned GIS expert Udo Steinbach in 2015. The jury of history is still out on the reforms and the kingdom’s future role in the region.

King Abdullah II

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a constitutional monarchy, but King Abdullah II has extensive prerogatives, giving him a free hand in terms of executive power, noted Zvi Mazel in his 2017 GIS report. The so-called Arab Spring led to some changes, but the monarch still chooses the prime minister, can dissolve parliament and appoints senior army officers and supreme court judges.

The king is the glue holding the country together. As a member of the Hashemite family, which claims to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad, King Abdullah II is highly respected, even though his mother is British. He grew up speaking English, went to military academies in England and the U.S., and retains a trace of an accent when speaking Arabic.

His kingdom of 10 million inhabitants is the linchpin of the Middle East. Should it be dislodged, the whole structure could fall apart. Jordan is the last barrier to Iran’s expansion: if Iranian forces establish themselves in southern Syria – or northern Jordan – the dream of a peaceful Middle East would end.

Will the king be able to stand firm and keep his country whole? “There are those who doubt he can maintain a grip on the internal situation,” admitted Ambassador Mazel. But he added:

The fact that King Abdullah II has managed so far is a good omen. He can count on overt American support, while Israel will do its utmost to help. It is worth noting that monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have done better at resisting the onslaught of radical Islam and populism than other countries in the region.

King Mohammed VI

In Morocco, the royal Alawi dynasty has reigned since the 17th century. When the Arab Spring erupted in the Maghreb in 2011, the king strategically offered a constitutional reform, which would give more power to democratic decision-making processes. Yet, the king still has the last word – and there would be “red lines,” which cannot be crossed, somewhat skeptically observed GIS expert Emmanuel Martin in his 2014  report on the country.

Following up on the developments a year and a half later, GIS expert Jaimie Nogueira Pinto found the reforms  surprisingly successful. Close cooperation between King Mohammed and the coalition government led by the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (JDP) produced legislative, institutional and regulatory reforms, including a groundbreaking law on pricing freedom and competitiveness. They boosted the country’s private sector and significantly improved the business environment. Morocco advanced in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings. As a result, Morocco is one of the few countries to emerge from the Arab Spring with its international standing enhanced. Wrote the expert:

The difference maker was King Mohammed VI’s popularity and his quick response to street protests. This allowed Morocco to avoid the social unrest, security breakdowns and chaos that marked political developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Crucial to the king’s effectiveness was his dual role as head of state and religious leader of the faithful. A lineage that can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad gives the monarchy a strong religious legitimacy, shielding the country from Wahhabism.


King Maha Vajiralongkorn

Promoting unity and cohesion are key missions of modern monarchs not only in Europe.

Thailand is nominally a constitutional monarchy, but anyone who has spent significant time there knows it feels like a kingdom more than anything else, noted GIS expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak in his 2018 report on the country that, as he put it, “frustrates as much as it beckons.” Thailand has gone through 19 constitutions and 13 successful coups over the past 87 years since the first charter replaced absolute monarchy in 1932. For most of that time, it was under the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose remarkable reign began in 1946 and lasted seven decades.

Contemporary Thailand is a product of sociopolitical and economic development during King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign – the first five decades during the Cold War and the last two in the 21st century. The question is whether it can become a modern democracy, as the international community expects and the population demands.

Hence the existential task facing King Maha Vajiralongkorn after his father’s long reign. After ascending to the throne in December 2016, the new monarch has spent most of his time overseas in Europe, in southern Germany, yet he has managed to consolidate his hold on power. The constitution has been revised to enable the king to be abroad without having to designate a regent and to maintain the monarch’s role as the final arbiter in cases of complete political breakdown.

The Thai people are willing to give their new king a chance as long as political stability is regained and the economy grows at a healthy pace. They will want to see an institutional rebalance in favor of political parties, parliament, electoral rule and a popular mandate. King Vajiralongkorn is positioned to deliver on these expectations through a new constitutional order that accommodates both monarchy and democracy – a flexible mix of not too much of one or the other, allowing democratic institutions to strengthen and the monarchy to adjust.

Emperor Naruhito

Japan’s monarchy is unique, asserted GIS expert Urs Schoettli. Its dynasty is the world’s longest-reigning, yet in the allocation of political power and the character of its institutions, Japan resembles a republic more than a monarchy. In reality, however, the emperor is much more than a crowned head of state. He is a part of Japan’s social contract.

The end of the Pacific campaign of World War II and the defeat of Japan in 1945 could easily have brought about the demise of the imperial system. Many believed that as the ultimate authority and commander of the armed forces, Emperor Hirohito was personally responsible for the war crimes committed by Japanese troops in China, Korea and Southeast Asia. They wanted Hirohito to be deposed and brought before the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

However, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan, thought differently. He correctly recognized that the emperor could help facilitate a peaceful and orderly transition to civilian rule.

While the Japanese public had no illusions about who was in charge after the surrender, Emperor Hirohito proved to be of great help in Japan’s transition from imperialist to peaceful policies. Until the surrender, the emperor had a god-like status, and Shinto was the state religion. All this was removed in 1945. From then on, Emperor Hirohito played a constructive role in securing healthy continuity and in supporting reform and peaceful development, both needed for reconstruction after the devastating Pacific War.

On the whole, the imperial household upholds the highest standards of integrity and dignity. As it is highly restricted, nothing damaging or critical is reported about the Japanese court. This impermeability is also because the innermost core consists of the emperor and his male descendants; female children leave the household once they marry.

On April 30, 2019, a short succession ceremony was held in the imperial palace. Emperor Akihito, Emperor Hirohito’s successor, declared his resignation. The new emperor, Naruhito, promised to work for the good of the Japanese people. The formal enthronement took place nearly six months later, on October 22. Mr. Schoettli wrote:

Many remember how Emperor Akihito sided with the people when big natural disasters such as the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the Tohoku tsunami of 2011 took place. His modest and compassionate demeanor won him great public affection, and he was seen as a monarch who displayed the right sentiments toward his people. Thanks to him, Japan’s monarchy has never been more solidly rooted among the people than today, when his son begins a new reign.

Source: GIS Reports


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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