Constitutional monarchy (or limited monarchy) is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a constitution, whether it be a written, uncodified, or blended constitution. This form of government differs from absolute monarchy in which an absolute monarch serves as the source of power in the state and is not legally bound by any constitution and has the powers to regulate his or her respective government.
Most constitutional monarchies employ a parliamentary system in which the monarch may have strictly ceremonial duties or may have reserve powers, depending on the constitution. Under most modern constitutional monarchies there is also a prime minister who is the head of government and exercises effective political power. 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.
Contemporary constitutional monarchies include the United Kingdom and Commonwealth realms, Belgium, Bhutan, Bahrain, Cambodia, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, and Thailand.
The latest country that was completely transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy is Bhutan.
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 ('a limited monarchy') are much older than that (see Magna Carta). With the Hanoverian accession in Britain onwards, monarchs saw their powers pass further to their ministers, and Royal neutrality in politics became cemented from around the start of the reign of Queen Victoria (though she had her personal favorites) and enlargements to the franchise. Today, the role is by convention effectively ceremonial. Instead, the British Parliament and the Government - chiefly in the office of Prime Minister - exercise their powers under 'Royal (or Crown) Prerogative': on behalf of the Monarch and through powers still formally possessed by the Monarch.  No person may accept significant public office without swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
Constitutional monarchy occurred first in continental Europe, briefly in the early years of the French revolution, but much more widely afterwards. Napoleon Bonaparte is considered the first monarch proclaiming himself as an embodiment of the nation, rather than as a divinely-appointed ruler; this interpretation of monarchy is germane to continental constitutional monarchies. G.W.F. Hegel, in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), gave it a philosophical justification that concurred with evolving contemporary political theory and the Protestant Christian view of natural law. Hegel's forecast of a constitutional monarch with very limited powers whose function is to embody the national character and provide constitutional continuity in times of emergency was reflected in the development of constitutional monarchies in Europe and Japan. His forecast of the form of government suitable to the modern world may be seen as prophetic: the largely ceremonial offices of president in some modern parliamentary democracies in Europe and e.g. Israel can be perceived as elected or appointed versions of Hegel's constitutional monarch; the Russian and French presidents, with their stronger powers, may also be regarded in Hegelian terms as wielding powers suitable to the embodiment of the national will.
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.
The present concept of constitutional monarchy developed in the United Kingdom, where it was the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister, who had become those who exercised power, with the monarchs voluntarily ceding it and contenting themselves with the titular position. 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 the course of France's July Monarchy, Louis-Philippe I was styled "King of the French" rather than "King of France".
Following the Unification of Germany, Otto von Bismarck rejected the British model. In the kind of constitutional monarchy established under the Constitution of the German Empire which Bismarck inspired, the Kaiser retained considerable actual executive power, and the Prime Minister needed no parliamentary vote of confidence and ruled solely by the imperial mandate. However, this model of constitutional monarchy was discredited and abolished following Germany's defeat in the First World War. Later on, Fascist Italy could also be considered as a "constitutional monarchy" of a kind, in the sense that there was a king as the titular head of state while actual power was held by Benito Mussolini under a constitution. This eventually discredited the Italian monarchy and led to its abolition in 1946. After the Second World War, surviving European monarchies almost invariably adopted some variant of the constitutional monarchy model originally developed in Britain.
In present terms, the difference between a parliamentary democracy that is a constitutional monarchy and one that is a republic is sometimes considered more one of detail than of substance. In both cases, the titular head of state - monarch or president - serves the traditional role of embodying and representing the nation, while the actual governing is carried out by a cabinet composed predominantly of elected Members of Parliament. In some cases, constitutional monarchies have been dubbed "crowned republics".
However, there are three important factors that set aside monarchies such as the United Kingdom from systems where greater power might otherwise rest with Parliament. These are the issue of Royal Prerogative where the reigning monarch may continue to exercise power under certain very limited circumstances, Sovereign Immunity where they are considered to have done no wrong under the law, and may avoid both taxation and planning permission for example, and considerable ceremonial power where the executive, judiciary, police and armed forces owe allegiance to the Crown.
Today constitutional monarchies are mostly associated with Western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Sweden. However, the two most populous constitutional monarchies in the world are in Asia: Japan and Thailand. 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 residual (but not always minor) powers. The powers of the monarch differ between countries. 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 dismissed by the Governor-General. The Australian senate had threatened to block the Government's budget by refusing to pass the associated appropriation bills. On 11 November 1975, Whitlam intended to call a half-Senate election in an attempt to break the deadlock. When he went to seek the Governor-General's approval of the election, the Governor-General instead dismissed him as Prime Minister, and shortly thereafter installed leader of the opposition Malcolm Fraser in his place. Acting quickly before all parliamentarians became aware of the change of government, Fraser and his allies were able to secure passage of the appropriation bills, and the Governor-General dissolved Parliament for a double dissolution election. Fraser and his government were returned with a massive majority. This led to much speculation among Whitlam's supporters as to whether this use of the Governor-General's reserve powers was appropriate, and whether Australia should become a republic. Among supporters of constitutional monarchy however, the experience confirmed the value of the monarchy as a source of checks and balances against elected politicians who might seek powers in excess of those conferred by their respective constitutions, and ultimately as a safeguard against dictatorship.
In Thailand's constitutional monarchy, the monarch is recognized as the Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist Religion, and Defender of the Faith. The current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the longest reigning current monarch in the world and in all of Thailand's history. Bhumibol has reigned through several political changes in the Thai government. He has played an influential role in each incident, often acting as mediator between disputing political opponents. (See Bhumibol's role in Thai Politics.) While the monarch retains some powers from the constitution, most particular is Lèse majesté which protects the image and ability of the monarch to play a role in politics and carries modest criminal penalties for violators. Generally, the Thai people are reverent of Bhumibol. Much of his social influence comes from that and the fact that the royal family is often involved in socio-economic improvement efforts.
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 some political scientists champion the idea of an "interventionist monarch" as a check against possible illegal action by politicians. There are currently 44 monarchies, and most of them are constitutional monarchies.
The following is a list of reigning monarchies. Except where noted, monarch selection is hereditary as directed by the state's constitution.
|State||Last constitution established||Type of monarchy||Monarch selection|
|Antigua and Barbuda||1981||monarchy||Kingdom||Heredity||Hereditary succession.|
|Andorra||1993||Co-Principality||Selection of Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell and election of French President|
|Australia||1901||Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy.||Hereditary succession.|
|Belgium||1831||Kingdom; popular monarchy|
|Cambodia||1993||Kingdom||Chosen by throne council|
|Canada||1867 (last updated 1982)||Constitutional Monarchy and Federal Parliamentary Democracy.||Hereditary succession.|
|Denmark||1953||Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy.|
|Greenland||2009||Parliamentary Democracy and Constitutional Monarchy.||Hereditary succession.|
|Kuwait||1962||Emirate||Hereditary succession, with directed approval of the House of Al-Sabah and majority of National Assembly|
|Lesotho||1993||Kingdom||Hereditary succession directed approval of College of Chiefs|
|Malaysia||1957||Elective monarchy||Selected from nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states|
|New Zealand||1907||Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy.||Hereditary succession.|
|Papua New Guinea||1975||Kingdom||Hereditary succession.|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||1983||Kingdom||Hereditary succession.|
|Saint Lucia||1979||Kingdom||Hereditary succession.|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||1979||Kingdom||Hereditary succession.|
|Solomon Islands||1978||Kingdom||Hereditary succession.|
|Swaziland||1968||Kingdom; Mixture of absolute and constitutional monarchy||Hereditary succession|
|Sweden||1974||Kingdom||Switched from semi-constitutional monarchy to constitutional monarchy|
|United Arab Emirates||1971||Federal Union of Emirate|
|President elected by the seven absolute monarchs constituting the Federal Supreme Council|
|United Kingdom||1688||Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy.||Hereditary succession.|