Around the world, monarchs hold different roles in government and more.
Canadians live in a “constitutional monarchy”. So, we are somewhat familiar with how our system has evolved to the point where the Queen is mainly a figurehead at the top of our government. Over many centuries, the British, and then Canadian, systems moved away from the King or Queen holding absolute power over their subjects. Now, the sovereign’s role is representative and symbolic in almost all respects.
What might surprise many Canadians are examples from around the world where monarchs still hold actual – sometimes absolute, unchecked – power over their citizens and subjects. Wikipedia lists 44 countries (as of 2019) around the world which are considered monarchies. Many of those countries are members of the Commonwealth. And most of them, like Canada, have the Queen as their ceremonial and symbolic Head of State. Among the others, the actual roles and powers of the royal persons vary widely.
Most of the remaining monarchies of Europe (mainly Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden) are like the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries. The states are fully democratic and the sovereigns usually play only symbolic roles. Perhaps the most notable recent exception is that of King Juan Carlos of Spain. He was instrumental in restoring democracy to that country after the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. More recently, he has abdicated and gone into exile because of allegations of corrupt financial dealings while he was in power. In some smaller European nations – for example, Monaco and Lichtenstein – a prince is Head of State. He shares actual power with elected legislative assemblies.Some Middle Eastern countries are monarchies, where we can find some of the the most authoritarian and dictatorial examples of present-day royal families.Since the end of the Second World War, the monarchy in Japan – where there is still an Emperor (“Emperor of God” – Tenno) – has also been limited to a ceremonial role. Before 1945, however, the Emperor still wielded significant authority and the Japanese revered him as having directly descended from heaven. Many considered the Emperor to be personally responsible for Japanese war decisions. After the war, there was talk of putting him on trial for war crimes. The Emperor was instrumental in arranging the Japanese surrender in 1945, and one of the main conditions was that his powers and authority would remain intact. Ultimately, the Allies agreed to allow the Emperor to stay in place but only on the basis he would cede real power to elected representatives of the Japanese people. Japan is now a fully-functioning democracy where the Emperor plays a symbolic role similar to the monarchs of modern Europe.
The King’s Critics
In other countries considered somewhat democratic, monarchs are not as benign as in Japan, Europe and the Commonwealth. In some places there are still strict laws against criticism of the king such that offenders are often sentenced to long periods of imprisonment. In Morocco, for example, there are several democratic institutions but the king continues to wield significant power. Authorities deal severely with acts or statements which are seen to be critical of him (or the government or royal family). Journalists can be arrested and detained if they are found guilty of publishing criticisms of the monarch, his family and the government generally.
Similarly, Thailand is usually considered to be a relatively democratic country in which citizens elect the members of one of the branches of the National Assembly. However, the King – whom most Thais revere – still holds significant authority. Any criticism or moves to limit his powers bring harsh responses. As I write this article in April 2021, the news out of Thailand describes clashes in the streets between the military and protesters demanding government reform and greater curbs on the King’s powers. Many protesters have been hurt. Leaders of the movement have been arrested and charged with offences such as sedition and “insulting the royal family”, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Some Middle Eastern countries are monarchies, where we can find some of the the most authoritarian and dictatorial examples of present-day royal families. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most well-known example. The King and royal family of Saudi Arabia continue to hold absolute, real power over the country and its people. The family is said to be large enough that it has been able to place its members into most positions of power and authority at almost all levels and positions of government. Most laws are enacted by Royal Decrees issued by the King. Any public criticism of the King or royal family is punished swiftly and harshly. In 2018, a well-known critic of the royal family, Jamal Kashoggi, was murdered and his body dismembered in Turkey by a group of men directly tied to, and acting under orders from, the Saudi Crown Prince. Due to the realities of international politics, however, few (if any) steps were taken against the Prince or other royals, or the government of Saudi Arabia itself, for having ordered and taken part in this murder. Hundreds of other dissidents and others alleged to oppose the King languish in Saudi jails and prisons.
In some places there are still strict laws against criticism of the king such that offenders are often sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.Other examples – also from the Middle East – of absolute monarchies where the ruler has overall authority over his people include Qatar (where the Emir is the Head of State) and the Sultanate of Oman. Both regimes are fairly repressive and do not respect the human rights of citizens. All power rests with the monarch, and any criticism or questioning of his decisions or rulings is punished severely.
It may surprise readers to know that another example of a monarch considered to have absolute power over his territory and citizens is the Pope. He rules Vatican City, though thankfully somewhat more benevolently than the other absolute monarchs mentioned above. Although the Pope is elected to his position, once installed he has virtually unlimited authority not just over the Roman Catholic Church but also over Vatican City, its occupants and its functioning. Recent news articles about criminal proceedings taking place at the Vatican – one for financial crimes and another for sexual offences – have included comments about the Pope’s overall authority. He can decide on the procedures to be followed and information to be provided to the accused and their lawyers, all on the basis that he is the sole source of law and legal power within the City.
Most monarchs inherit their title and positions from their ancestors, but another who, like the Pope, is elected to the position is the King of Malaysia (“He Who is Made Lord” – Yang di-Pertuan Agong). Every five years the King is elected from among the nine leaders of the various Malaysian states. The position is mainly ceremonial, however, and the system of government is modelled upon the British system of democracy. (The British put this arrangement in place as Malaysia gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.)
Wikipedia lists 44 countries (as of 2019) around the world which are considered monarchies.A rare, recent example of a monarch who gave up his powers to allow his people to attain democracy is that of the “Dragon King” (Druk Gyalpo) of Bhutan. The current King took the position when his father abdicated in 2006 and was crowned in 2008. The new King continued a process his father had started, of democratising the country and bringing a new constitution into effect. He remains Head of State and has authority to appoint many other high government officials (and cannot be made to answer for his decisions or actions in court). But the constitution commits him to always act in the best interests of the people of Bhutan. Most actual political power now rests with assemblies whose members are elected by all Bhutanese. These elected bodies have the power to force the King to abdicate if they see fit.
An Uncertain Future
What does the future hold for royals around the world? History has shown an undeniable move towards greater democratization over centuries. Our own system, as it presently exists, is the result of centuries of struggle (sometimes violent) and evolution away from the dictatorship of absolute, unrestricted power being vested in a single individual recognized as the King or Queen. Even in places like present-day Saudi Arabia, there are brave souls who argue for change. And even as they would preserve the monarchy for at least ceremonial purposes, they want greater powers placed in the hands of the people and representatives elected by them to govern their countries. In some situations, revolutions and other upheavals have led to the ouster of monarchs and their families. But despite those changes, for many people there seems to be something endearing about the idea of at least a figurehead representative of the nation state in the form of a royal leader whose personal history and background links the present-day nation to its past.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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