Constitutional monarchy explained

A constitutional monarchy is a form of constitutional government, where in either an elected or hereditary monarch is the head of state, unlike in an absolute monarchy, wherein the king or the queen is the sole source of political power, as he or she is not legally bound by the constitution. Most constitutional monarchies have a parliamentary system (Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, United Kingdom) in which the monarch is the head of state, but a directly- or indirectly-elected prime minister is head of government. Although contemporary constitutional monarchies mostly are representative, constitutional democratic monarchies, they have co-existed with fascist and quasi-fascist constitutions (Italy, Spain) and with military dictatorships (Thailand).

Constitutional monarchies and absolute monarchies

Constitutional monarchy in the European tradition

In Britain, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 led to a constitutional monarchy restricted by laws such as the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Act of Settlement 1701, although limits on the power of the monarch are much older than that.

Constitutional monarchy occurred in continental Europe after the French revolution. General Napoleon Bonaparte is considered the first monarch proclaiming himself as embodiment of the nation, rather than as a divinely-appointed ruler; this interpretation of monarchy is basic to continental constitutional monarchies. G.W.F. Hegel, in Philosophy of Right (1820) justified it philosophically, according well with evolving contemporary political theory and with the Protestant Christian view of Natural Law. Hegel forecast a constitutional monarch of limited powers, whose function is embodying the national character and constitutional continuity in emergencies, per the development of constitutional monarchy in Europe and Japan. Moreover, the ceremonial office of president (e.g. European and Israeli parliamentary democracies), is a contemporary type of Hegel's constitutional monarch (whether elected or appointed), yet, his forecast of the form of government suitable to the modern world might be perceived as prophetic. The Russian and French presidents, with their stronger powers, might be Hegelian, wielding power suited to the national will embodied.

Modern constitutional monarchy

As originally conceived, a constitutional monarch was quite a powerful figure, head of the executive branch even though his or her power was limited by the constitution and the elected parliament. Some of the framers of the US Constitution may have conceived of the president as being an elected constitutional monarch, as the term was understood in their time, following Montesquieu's account of the separation of powers in the United Kingdom[1], it was the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister, who had become those who exercised power. In many cases even the monarchs themselves, while still at the very top of the political and social hierarchy, were given the status of "servants of the people" to reflect the new, egalitarian view.

In present terms, the difference between a parliamentary democracy that is a constitutional monarchy, and one that is a republic, is considered more a difference of detail than of substance, particularly in the common case in which the head of state serves the traditional role of embodying and representing the nation. This is reflected, for example, in all but the most die-hard Spanish Republicans accepting their country's returning to constitutional monarchy after the death of Francisco Franco.

Constitutional monarchies today

Today constitutional monarchies are mostly associated with Western European countries such as the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Sweden. In such cases it is the prime minister who holds the day-to-day powers of governance, while the King or Queen (or other monarch, such as a Grand Duke, in the case of Luxembourg, or Prince in the case of Monaco and Liechtenstein) retains only minor to no powers. Different nations grant different powers to their monarchs. In the Netherlands, Denmark and in Belgium, for example, the Monarch formally appoints a representative to preside over the creation of a coalition government following a parliamentary election, while in Norway the King chairs special meetings of the cabinet. In nearly all cases, the monarch is still the nominal chief executive, but is bound by constitutional convention to act on the advice of the Cabinet. Only a few monarchies (most notably Japan and Sweden) have amended their constitutions so that the monarch is no longer even the nominal chief executive.

The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen Commonwealth realms under Elizabeth II. Unlike some of their continental European counterparts, the Monarch and her Governors-General in the Commonwealth Realms hold significant "reserve" or "prerogative" powers, to be wielded in times of extreme emergency or constitutional crises usually to uphold parliamentary government. An instance of a Governor General exercising his power was during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, when the Australian Prime Minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, was effectively fired from his position. This led to much speculation as to whether this use of the Governor General's reserve powers was appropriate, and whether Australia should become a republic.

In both the United Kingdom and elsewhere, a common debate centres around when it is appropriate for a monarch to use his or her political powers. When a monarch does act, political controversy can often ensue, partially because the neutrality of the crown is seen to be compromised in favour of a partisan goal. While political scientists may champion the idea of an "interventionist monarch" as a check against possible illegal action by politicians, the monarchs themselves are often driven by a more pragmatic sense of self-preservation, in which avoiding political controversy can be seen as an important way to retain public legitimacy and popularity.

There also exist today several federal constitutional monarchies. In these countries, each subdivision has a distinct government and head of government, but all subdivisions share a monarch who is head of state of the federation as a united whole.

List of current reigning monarchies

StateLast constitution establishedType of monarchyMonarch selected by
Andorra1993Co-PrincipalitySelection of Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell and election of French President
Bahrain2002KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Belgium1831Kingdom; popular monarchy[2] Hereditary succession directed by constitution
Bhutan2007KingdomHereditary succession
Islamic absolute monarchy
Hereditary succession
Cambodia1993KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Denmark1953KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Japan1946EmpireHereditary succession directed by constitution
Jordan1952KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Kuwait1962EmirateHereditary succession directed approval of al-Sabah family and majority of National Assembly
Lesotho1993KingdomHereditary succession directed approval of College of Chiefs
Liechtenstein1862PrincipalityHereditary succession directed by constitution
Luxembourg1868Grand duchyHereditary succession directed by constitution
Malaysia1957Elective monarchySelected from nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states
Monaco1911PrincipalityHereditary succession directed by constitution
Morocco1962KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Netherlands1815KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Norway1814KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Oman1996Sultanate; Islamic absolute monarchyHereditary succession
Qatar2003Emirate; absolute monarchyHereditary succession
Saudi Arabia1992Kingdom; Islamic absolute monarchyHereditary succession
Spain1978KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Swaziland1968Kingdom; absolute monarchyHereditary succession
Sweden1974KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Thailand2007KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Tonga1970KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
United Arab Emirates1971Elective monarchyChosen by Federal Supreme Council from rulers of Abu Dhabi
Theocratic elective monarchyChosen by College of Cardinals
United Kingdom1688KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Antigua and Barbuda1981monarchyKingdomHeredityHereditary succession directed by constitution
Australia1901KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
1973KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Barbados1966KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Belize1981KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Canada1867KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Grenada1974KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Jamaica1962KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
New Zealand1907KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Papua New Guinea1975KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Saint Kitts and Nevis1983KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Saint Lucia1979KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines1979KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Solomon Islands1978KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution
Tuvalu1978KingdomHereditary succession directed by constitution

Previous monarchies

Other situations


Notes and References

  1. [Baron de Montesquieu]
  2. Belgium is the only existing popular monarchy — a system in which the monarch's title is linked to the people rather than a state. The title of Belgian kings is not King of Belgium, but instead King of the Belgians. Another unique feature of the Belgian system is that the new monarch does not automatically assume the throne at the death or abdication of his predecessor; he only becomes monarch upon taking a constitutional oath.