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Constitutional monarchy

Compare with Absolute monarchy

A constitutional monarchy, limited monarchy, parliamentary monarchy (also crowned republic),[1][2][a] is a form of monarchy where the governing powers of the monarch are restricted by the terms of a constitution.[3]

A constitutional monarchy may refer to a system in which the monarch acts as a non-party political head of state under the constitution, whether written or unwritten.[4] While the monarch may hold formal reserve powers and government may officially take place in the monarch's name, they do not set public policy or choose political leaders. Political scientist Vernon Bogdanor, paraphrasing Thomas Macaulay, has defined a constitutional monarch as "a sovereign who reigns but does not rule."[5] In addition to acting as a visible symbol of national unity, a constitutional monarch may hold formal powers such as dissolving parliament or giving Royal Assent to legislation. However, the exercise of such powers is generally a formality rather than an opportunity for the sovereign to enact personal political preference. In The English Constitution, British political theorist Walter Bagehot identified three main political rights which a constitutional monarch could freely exercise: the right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn. Some constitutional monarchs, however, retain significant power and influence and play an important political role.

The United Kingdom and fifteen of its former colonies are constitutional monarchies with a Westminster system of government. Three states – Malaysia, Cambodia and the Holy See – employ true elective monarchies, where the ruler is periodically selected by a small, aristocratic electoral college.

The most recent country to transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy was Bhutan, in 2007–08.

Constitutional and absolute monarchy

In England, 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). At the same time, in Scotland, the Convention of Estates enacted the Claim of Right Act 1689 which placed similar limits on the Scottish monarchy. 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.[6] 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.[7][8] No person may accept significant public office without swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen.[9] 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 republics 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.[citation needed]

Executive monarchy versus ceremonial monarchy

There exist at least two different types of constitutional monarchies in the modern world — executive and ceremonial. In executive monarchies, the monarch wields significant (though not absolute) power. The monarchy under this system of government is a powerful political (and social) institution. By contrast, in ceremonial monarchies, the monarch holds little actual power or direct political influence.

Executive Constitutional monarchies: Bhutan, Bahrain, Cambodia, Jordan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Monaco, Morocco, Tonga, Thailand.

Ceremonial monarchies or Crowned Parliamentary Democracy: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Canada, Denmark, Grenada, Jamaica, Japan, Lesotho, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sweden, Tuvalu and the United Kingdom.

Ceremonial and executive monarchy, should not be confused with democratic and non-democratic monarchical systems. For example, in Liechtenstein and Monaco, the ruling monarchs wield significant executive power. However, they are not absolute monarchs, and these countries are generally reckoned as democracies.

Modern constitutional monarchy

As originally conceived, a constitutional monarch was head of the executive branch and quite a powerful figure, 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 envisaged the president as an elected constitutional monarch, as the term was then understood, following Montesquieu's account of the separation of powers.[10]

The present-day concept of a constitutional monarchy developed in the United Kingdom, where the democratically elected parliaments, and their leader, the prime minister, exercise power, with the monarchs having ceded power and remaining as a titular position. In many cases the monarchs, 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 position. 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 constitutional monarchy established under the Constitution of the German Empire which Bismarck inspired, the Kaiser retained considerable actual executive power, while the Imperial Chancellor 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, Fascist Italy could also be considered as a constitutional monarchy, in 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.

Nowadays a parliamentary democracy that is a constitutional monarchy is considered to differ from one that is a republic only in detail rather than in substance. In both cases, the titular head of state—monarch or president—serves the traditional role of embodying and representing the nation, while the government is carried on by a cabinet composed predominantly of elected Members of Parliament.

However, three important factors distinguish monarchies such as the United Kingdom from systems where greater power might otherwise rest with Parliament. These are: the Royal Prerogative under which the monarch may exercise power under certain very limited circumstances; Sovereign Immunity under which the monarch may do no wrong under the law because the responsible government is instead deemed accountable; and the monarch may not be subject to the same taxation or property use restrictions as most citizens. Other privileges may be nominal or ceremonial (e.g., where the executive, judiciary, police or armed forces act on the authority of or owe allegiance to the Crown).

Today slightly more than a quarter of constitutional monarchies are Western European countries, including the United Kingdom, the 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 these countries the prime minister 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 residual (but not always insignificant) powers. The powers of the monarch differ between countries. In 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.

There are sixteen constitutional monarchies under Queen Elizabeth II, which are known as Commonwealth realms.[11] 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 such power occurred during the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, when the Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, was dismissed by the Governor-General. The Australian senate had threatened to block the Government's budget by refusing to pass the necessary appropriation bills. On 11 November 1975, Whitlam intended to call a half-Senate election in an attempt to break the deadlock. When he sought 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 secured 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 the constitution, 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.[12] 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.) Among the powers retained by the monarch under the constitution, lèse majesté protects the image of the monarch and enables him to play a role in politics. It carries strict criminal penalties for violators. Generally, the Thai people are reverent of Bhumibol. Much of his social influence arises from this reverence and from the socio-economic improvement efforts undertaken by the royal family.

In both the United Kingdom and elsewhere, a frequent debate centers on 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.

List of current reigning monarchies

Type of monarchy Monarch selection
23x15px Andorra 1993 Co-Principality Selection of Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell and election of French President
23x15px Antigua and Barbuda 1981 Kingdom Hereditary succession
23x15px Australia 1901
23x15px Bahamas 1973
23x15px Barbados 1966
23x15px Bahrain 2002
23x15px Belgium 1831 Popular monarchy[b] (Hereditary succession)[b]
23x15px Belize 1981 Kingdom Hereditary succession
23x15px Bhutan 2007
23x15px Cambodia 1993 Chosen by throne council
23x15px Canada 1867 Hereditary succession
23x15px Denmark 1849
23x15px Grenada 1974
Template:Country data Jamaica 1962
Template:Country data Japan 1947 Empire
Template:Country data Jordan 1952 Kingdom
Template:Country data Kuwait 1962 Emirate Hereditary succession, with directed approval of the House of Al-Sabah and majority of National Assembly
23x15px Lesotho 1993 Kingdom Hereditary succession, subject to directed approval of College of Chiefs[citation needed]
23x15px Liechtenstein 1862 Principality Hereditary succession
23x15px Luxembourg 1868 Grand duchy
23x15px Malaysia 1957 Elective federal monarchy Selected from nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states
23x15px Monaco 1911 Principality Hereditary succession
23x15px Morocco 2011 Kingdom
23x15px Netherlands 1815
23x15px New Zealand 1907
23x15px Norway 1814
23x15px Papua New Guinea 1975
23x15px Saint Kitts and Nevis 1983
23x15px Saint Lucia 1979
23x15px Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 1979
23x15px Solomon Islands 1978
23x15px Spain 1978
23x15px Swaziland 1968
23x15px Sweden 1974
23x15px Thailand 2014
23x15px Tonga 1970
23x15px Tuvalu 1978
23x15px United Arab Emirates 1971 Elective constitutional federation President elected by the seven monarchs constituting the Federal Supreme Council
23x15px United Kingdom (1689, 1701) Kingdom Hereditary succession

Former constitutional monarchies

Quasi-constitutional monarchies

See also


  1. ^ The terms crowned republic and parliamentary monarchy are used by some sources to distinguish one type of constitutional monarchy from another, but because the terms have no widely adopted meanings, different authorities define the terms in such a way that the definitions may overlap between publications. While the Australian Republic Advisory Committee used the term crowned republic to describe a constitutional monarchy where the monarch's role is ceremonial and all royal prerogatives are prescribed by custom and law in such a way that the monarch has little or no discretion over governmental and constitutional issues (and with it have framed the usage of the term in Australia) (Patmore 2009, p. 105), parliamentary monarchy has been used to describe both a system where the monarch's powers are restricted (as in a crowned republic) (Schmitt 2008, pp. 313–314) and also where the powers of the monarch are less constrained by custom than is true of most modern European constitutional monarchies (Orr 2002, p. 3). Note also that absolute monarchies may employ parliaments, as is the case in Oman.
  2. ^ a b 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.


  1. ^ Boyce 2008, p. 1.
  2. ^ McCannon 2006, pp. 177–178.
  3. ^ Jerome Blum et al., The European World (1970) 1:267–68
  4. ^ "Constitutional Monarchy". The Encyclopedia of Political Science. CQ Press. 2011. 
  5. ^ Vernon Bogdanor (1996). "The Monarchy and the Constitution". Parliamentary Affairs 49 (3): 407–422. doi:10.1093/pa/49.3.407. , excerpted from Vernon Bogdanor (1995). The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford University Press. 
  6. ^ "What is constitutional monarchy?". Official website of the British Monarchy. Retrieved 11 March 2010. 
  7. ^ "Monarchy - Background". Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  8. ^ "Crown Prerogative". Official website of the UK Parliament. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  9. ^ "RESEARCH PAPER 01/116" (PDF). 
  10. ^ Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws. Legal Classics Library, 1924.
  11. ^ "Website of the British Monarchy: What is a Commonwealth realm?". Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  12. ^ "A Royal Occasion speeches". Journal. 1996. Retrieved 2006-07-05. 
  13. ^ Davies, Norman (1996). Europe: A History. Oxford University Press. p. 699. ISBN 0-19-820171-0. 


  • Boyce, Peter (2008). The Queen's Other Realms. Annandale: Federation Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-86287-700-9. 
  • Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Allen W. Wood, ed., H.B. Nisbet, trans.) Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-521-34438-7 (originally published as Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts, 1820).
  • Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. (Ian Shapiro, ed., with essays by John Dunn, Ruth W. Grant and Ian Shapiro.) New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003 (Two Treatises first pub. 1690). ISBN 0-300-10017-5.
  • Orr, Campbell, ed. (2002), Queenship in Britain, 1660-1837: Royal Patronage, Court Culture, and Dynastic Politics (illustrated ed.), Manchester University Press, p. 3, ISBN 9780719057694 
  • Patmeere, Glenn (2009), Choosing the Republic, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, p. 105, ISBN 1-74223-015-6 
  • Schmitt, Carl (2008) [1928], Seitzer, Jeffrey (translator), ed., Constitutional Theory (illustrated ed.), Duke University Press, pp. 313–314, ISBN 9780822340119 

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