Constitutional monarchy

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A constitutional monarchy is a form of monarchical government established under a constitutional system which acknowledges a hereditary or elected monarch as head of state. Modern constitutional monarchies usually implement the concept of trias politica, or "separation of powers", where the monarch is the head of the executive branch. Where a monarch holds absolute power, it is known as an absolute monarchy, and law within an absolute monarchy can often be quite different from law within a constitutional monarchy.

Today, constitutional monarchy is almost always combined with representative democracy, and represents theories of sovereignty which place sovereignty in the hands of the people, and those that see a role for tradition in the theory of government. Though the king or queen may be regarded as the head of state, it is the Prime Minister, whose power derives directly or indirectly from elections, who actually governs the country.

Although current constitutional monarchies are mostly representative democracies, this has not always historically been the case. There have been monarchies which have coexisted with constitutions which were fascist (or quasi-fascist), as was the case in Italy, Japan and Spain, or those in which the government is run as a military dictatorship, as was the case in Thailand.

Some constitutional monarchies are hereditary; others, such as that of Malaysia are elective monarchies.


Differences between constitutional and absolute monarchies

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries several European countries experimented with new forms of government. Two of these were absolutism and constitutional monarchies.

Undemocratic Monarchy

Absolutism is a government in which a king or queen rules with total power, in other words as a dictator. The initiation of absolutism was made possible because countries were experiencing turmoil under existing governments. Religious wars, the decline of the church, and a growing middle class created a situation that demanded a leader to rule with complete power so as to restore order. Under absolutism the monarchs that ruled a country had total control because they believed they had a “divine right”. They believed that right was given to them by God and bestowed upon them the power to control the county totally. They often defended their abuse of power by saying that it was God’s will for them rule. Also in an absolute monarchy the monarch makes all economic decisions. For example, Louis XIV of France abused his control of money by spending it on his Palace of Versailles. According to Early Modern France 1560-1715, at the end of Louis XIV reign, the French Royal Family was in debt 2 billion livres or about 21 billion dollars. This type of carelessness has the power to destroy countries, and it almost did so to France. Although having a monarch in total control over the economy can be dangerous, it also can be advantageous if the monarch is responsible and knowledgeable on the subject of economics. When one monarch has total control, their personal values may overrule core ethics. This can cause a reduction of personal freedoms when the monarch favors one group over another. King Louis XIV demonstrated this when he kicked the Huguenots out of France by canceling the Edict of Nantes. Many People supported absolutism, including Thomas Hobbes. He wrote a book called Leviathan arguing that an absolute state is the best form of government. Hobbes, contrary to popular wisdom, which is inaccurate, supported either absolute monarchy or an absolute democracy. He did not only support an absolute monarch. Hobbes said that all humans were naturally selfish and that to leave the state of chaos this selfishness created, they would agree to a social contract which prohibited acts against the person or property of another, and which would be enforced by an absolute sovereign. (Most undergraduates confuse 'sovereign' with monarch. This is not what Hobbes meant.)

Liberal Monarchy

A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a king or queen rules with limits to their power along with a governing body (i.e. Parliament). A constitutional monarchy was able to form in England because there was a lack of strong leadership. Abuse of power by the king caused the English to question the “divine right” of the king. Also strong nobles and members of Parliament started to oppose the king’s authority. Parliament subsequently took several steps to limit the power of the king. First, they forced Charles I to sign the Petition of Right that says the king must go through Parliament to enact new laws, taxes, etc. After signing the Petition of Right, Charles I immediately ignored it, precipitating the English Civil Wars, and the eventual beheading of the king for treason. This sent a message to future monarchs of England that they did not have absolute power. During Charles II reign Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus. The Habeas Corpus Act said that any prisoner taken by the king would be given a trial. This prevented the king from simply removing his enemies by sending them to jail. When James II took the throne many people did not appreciate it when he flaunted his Catholicism. Therefore Parliament flexed its muscles once again by asking William of Orange to overthrow the king. William and his wife Mary came from the Netherlands and overthrew James II without bloodshed. This was called the “Glorious Revolution”. Once William and Mary had gained control of the throne, they completely supported the constitutional monarchy. Together they signed the Bill of Rights, which severely limited the power of the king, and gave more freedom to his subjects. One supporter of constitutional monarchy was John Locke. He wrote in his “Treatises on Government” that a direct democracy is the best form of government. He wrote that people are able to improve and rule themselves, and that people have three main rights. These rights are life, liberty, and property, and it is the government’s job to protect these rights. He also wrote that if the government is unjust the people have the right to overthrow it.

This evolution in thinking would eventually spawn such movements as universal sufferage and political parties. By the mid 20th Century, the political culture in Europe had shifted to the point where all constitutional monarchs had been reduced to the status of effective figureheads, with no effective power at all. Instead, it was the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister who had become the true rulers of the nation. In many cases even the monarchs themselves, who once sat at the very top of the political and social heiarchy, were given the status of "servants of the people" to reflect the new, egalitarian reality.

Constitutional Monarchies Today


In most constitutional monarchies today, the monarchy exists only at the pleasure of the elected parliament. In many cases, a simple majority vote in parliament is considered sufficient to abolish the monarchy and replace it with some form of republican alternative. With the exception of post-war Italy, no modern, democratic constitutional monarchy has voted to abolish itself. Most have ended as a result of complications following the aftermath of war or invasion (such as Austria or Germany) or because of a violent anti-monarchial revolution (such as in Russia or Greece).

Though many of Europe's past and present leftist parties contain anti-monarchy factions, to date few have openly declared a preference for flat-out monarchial abolition, and instead use their powers to curtail and reform alleged "un-democratic" or "prejudiced" elements of the monarchy. For example, in recent years the age-old tradition of "males first" order of succession to the throne has been abolished in most constitutional monarchies, allowing for eldest daughters to assume the throne before their brothers. The removal of formal reserve powers from the monarchy is another common measure in which a party may chose to "de-politicize" the monarchy, yet not scrap the entire institution.

The most likely reason why modern constitutional monarchies continue to survive is that the individual royal families themselves have remained popular. Today, most contemporary royal families go out of their way to project a modern image to the citizenry of a monarchy that is both caring and interested in the people and their country. Many members of modern royal families frequently make donations or participate in charity events, visit poor or sick citizens, and make public apperances at high profile sporting or arts events. Such moves can help make a monarchy seem contemporarily relevant, especially when the royals themselves get involved within the community. As long as a monarchy can remain popular in the public eye, there is little reason for the politicians to meddle, and those who do can easily find themselves at the receiving end of harsh public criticism.

Other defenders of constitutional monarchies argue that royal families promote tourism, and are a key tradition associated with patriotism and national pride. For example, in many constitutional monarchies the monarch's birthday is a national holiday, and an event marked with public patriotic events and parties. In recent years many royal families have also become popular targets of tabloid journalism and gossip, which although often argued as being intrusive and destructive, continues to prove that many find royals interesting simply as celebrities. A further argument speculates that abolishing a popular monarchy may be a pointless endeavor anyway, as even a "deposed" royal family could presumably still live their royal lifestyle and capture public attention, making any republican replacement seem illegitimate. Historically, when monarchies have been abolished the royal family was usually exiled to a foreign country to prevent their presence from interfering or distracting from the new republican government. However, such moves were usually done during periods of conflict and turmoil with the monarchy. If a democratic country was to abolish its monarchy today, an exile for the royal family would likely be denounced as cruel, and would thus not be seen as a practical option.

Previous monarchies

France functioned briefly as a constitutional monarchy during the French Revolution. It also was a constitutional monarchy under the reign of Louis XVIII and Charles X, but the latter's attempt at reinstating absolute monarchy led to his fall. Louis-Philippe of France was also a constitutional monarch.

Napoléon Bonaparte, as Emperor of the French, was a constitutional monarch, though he had wide powers and also occasionally abused powers that he did not have.

Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran was technically a constitutional monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, though his unconstitutional actions and use of secret police in the later part of his reign qualify him as far more of an absolute monarch.

Portugal until 1910 was a constitutional monarchy and the last king was Manuel II of Portugal. The last monarchic constitution, promulgated in 1838, excluded from the succession one of the actual pretender head of the Royal House of Portugal, Duarte Pio of Bragança.

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