Constitutional monarchy

Constitutional monarchy

A constitutional monarchy, or a limited monarchy, is a form of constitutional government, wherein 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 national constitution. The constitutional monarchy's government and its law are the government and the law of a limited monarchy. Most constitutional monarchies have a parliamentary system (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, 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, have co-existed with fascist and quasi-fascist constitutions (Italy, Japan, 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.

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.

"The Brabançonne", Belgium's national anthem, written shortly after publication of Philosophy of Right, ends with a pledge of loyalty to: Le Roi, la Loi, la Liberté! [The King, the Law, and Liberty!], said anthem might be counterpart to the French: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, with French Republican sentiment replaced with Belgian monarchical sentiment.

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 somewhat dated account of the separation of powers in the United Kingdom ; although the term "president" at that time implied someone with the powers of the chairman of a committee of equals, like the rotating "president" of the congress under the Articles of Confederation.

An evolution in political thinking would, however, eventually spawn such phenomena as universal suffrage and political parties. By the mid 20th century, the political culture in Europe had shifted to the point where most constitutional monarchs had been reduced to the status of figureheads, with no effective power at all. Instead, 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.

The above was particularly manifested in the fate of Picasso's famous painting "Guernica". The painter - who died in 1973, while Spain was still under the dictatorship - stipulated that his painting should be returned to Spain only after the restoration of the Spanish Republic. Nevertheless, in 1981 it was decided - after long and complicated negotiations - that the stabilization of democracy in Spain, though under a monarchy rather than a republic, in essence fulfilled the conditions of Picasso's will. Accordingly, the painting was returned to Madrid, a step meeting with general agreement in artistic and political circles alike.

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.

The most significant family of constitutional monarchies in the world today are the sixteen realms, all independent parliamentary democracies in a personal union relationship 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

State Last constitution established Type of monarchy Monarch selected by
1993 Co-Principality Selection of Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell and election of French President
2002 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1831 Kingdom; popular monarchy Hereditary succession directed by constitution
2007 Kingdom Hereditary succession
Sultanate Hereditary succession
1993 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1953 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1946 Empire Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1952 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1962 Emirate Hereditary succession directed approval of al-Sabah family and majority of National Assembly
1993 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed approval of College of Chiefs
1862 Principality Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1868 Grand duchy Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1957 Elective monarchy Selected from nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states
1911 Principality Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1962 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1815 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1814 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
Sultanate Hereditary succession
2003 Emirate Hereditary succession
2007 Elective Monarchy Elective Monarchy
Kingdom Hereditary succession
1978 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
Kingdom Hereditary succession
1974 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
2007 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1970 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1971 Elective monarchy Chosen by Federal Supreme Council from rulers of Abu Dhabi
Theocratic elective monarchy Chosen by College of Cardinals
1688 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1981 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1901 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1973 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1966 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1981 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1867 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1974 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1962 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1907 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1975 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1983 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1979 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1979 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1978 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1978 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution

Previous monarchies

  • The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, formed after the Union of Lublin in 1569 and lasting until the final partition of the state in 1795, operated much like many modern European constitutional monarchies. The legislators of the unified state truly did not see it as a monarchy at all, but as a republic under the presidency of the King. Poland-Lithuania also followed the principle of "Rex regnat et non gubernat", had a bicameral parliament, and a collection of entrenched legal documents amounting to a constitution along the lines of the modern United Kingdom. The King was elected, and had the duty of maintaining the people's rights.
  • The Anglo-Corsican Kingdom was a brief period in the history of Corsica (1794-1796) when the island broke with Revolutionary France and sought military protection from Great Britain. Corsica became an independent kingdom under George III of England, but with its own elected parliament and a written constitution guaranteeing local autonomy and democratic rights.
  • France functioned briefly as a constitutional monarchy during the post-Napoleonic era, 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 in theory a constitutional monarch, though he was ousted from France before his line could continue. In practice, however, he is often classed as a military dictator, whose power derived primarily from his command of the army.
  • The German Empire from 1871 to 1918, (as well as earlier confederations, and the monarchies it consisted of) was also a constitutional monarchy—see Constitution of the German Empire.
  • Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran was a constitutional monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, which had been originally established during the Persian Constitutional Revolution in 1906.
  • Portugal until 1910 was a constitutional monarchy; the last king was Manuel II of Portugal until he was overthrown by a military coup.
  • Mexico was twice an Empire. First from July 21, 1822 to March 19, 1823 with Agustín de Iturbide serving as emperor. Then, with the help of the Austrian and Spanish crowns, Napoleon III of France installed Maximilian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico. This attempt to create a European-style monarchy lasted three years, from 1864 to 1867.
  • Brazil from 1815 (United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves) until 1822, with the proclamation of independence and rise of the Empire of Brazil by Pedro I of Brazil. After this the Empire had ended in 1889, during the reign of Pedro II of Brazil, when the emperor was deposed by a military coup.
  • Hawaii was a constitutional monarchy from the unification of the smaller independent chiefdoms of Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lānai, and the Hawaii (or the "Big Island") in 1810 until the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 by conspirators from United States that threatened her that, should she not resign, her people would suffer greatly.
  • The Grand Duchy of Finland was a constitutional monarchy though its ruler, Alexander I, was simultaneously an autocrat and absolute ruler in Russia.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary in 1848–1849 and 1867–1918 as part of Austria-Hungary. In the interwar period (1920–1944) Hungary remained a constitutional monarchy without a reigning monarch.
  • Montenegro until 1918 when it merged with Serbia and other areas to form Yugoslavia.
  • Yugoslavia until 1945 when King Peter was deposed by the communist government.
  • Romania until 1947 when King Michael was forced to abdicate at gunpoint by the communists.
  • Bulgaria until 1946 when Tsar Simeon was deposed by the communist assembly without consultation of the people.
  • Greece until 1967 when King Constantine was deposed by the military government. The decision was formalised by a plebiscite in 05/04/1974.
  • Italy until 1947 when a referendum proclaimed the end of the Kingdom and the begin of the Republic.
  • Many Commonwealth republics were constitutional monarchies in personal union with the Commonwealth realms for some period after their independence.
  • Nepal until May 28, 2008, when King Gyanendra was deposed, and the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal was declared.

Other situations



  • G. W. F. Hegel, 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).
  • John Locke, 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.
  • Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws. Legal Classics Library, 1984.

Search another word or see constitutional monarchyon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature