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A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch acts as head of state within the perimeters of a written (i.e., codified), unwritten (i.e., uncodified) or blended constitution. It differs from absolute monarchy in that an absolute monarch serves as the sole source of political power in the state and is not legally bound by any constitution.

Most constitutional monarchies employ a parliamentary system in which the monarch is the ceremonial head of state and a directly or indirectly elected prime minister is the head of government and exercises effective political power. In the past, constitutional monarchs have co-existed with fascist and quasi-fascist constitutions (Fascist Italy, Francoist Spainmarker) and with military dictatorships.

Contemporary constitutional monarchies include Australia, Belgiummarker, Cambodiamarker, Canadamarker, Denmarkmarker, Japanmarker, Jordanmarker, Lesothomarker, Luxembourgmarker, Malaysiamarker, Moroccomarker, New Zealandmarker, The Netherlandsmarker, Norwaymarker, Spainmarker, Swedenmarker, Thailandmarker and the United Kingdommarker.

Constitutional monarchies and absolute monarchies

Constitutional monarchy in the European tradition

In 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.

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 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 Francemarker'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 Mussolini under a constitution (to be sure, a Fascist and anti-democratic one). 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 considered more a difference 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 an elected Prime Minister.

Today constitutional monarchies are mostly associated with Western European countries such as the United Kingdommarker, The Netherlandsmarker, Belgiummarker, Norwaymarker, Denmarkmarker, Spainmarker, Luxembourgmarker, Monacomarker, Liechtensteinmarker, and Swedenmarker. 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. 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 Norwaymarker 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 Japanmarker and Swedenmarker) 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 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 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 (King Bhumibol Adulyadej) is the longest reigning current monarch in the world and in all of Thailand's history. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned through several political changes in the Thai government. He has played an influential role in each incident, oftentimes acting as mediator between disputing political opponents. (See King 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 King 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 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. The latest country that was completely transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democratic monarchy is Bhutanmarker.

List of current reigning monarchies

State Last constitution established Type of monarchy Monarch selected by
1981 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1993 Co-Principality Selection of Bishop of La Seu d'Urgellmarker and election of French President
1901 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1973 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1966 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
2002 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1831 Kingdom; popular monarchy Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1981 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
2007 Kingdom Hereditary succession
1959 Sultanate; Islamic absolute monarchy Hereditary succession
1993 Kingdom Chosen by throne council
1982 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1953 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1974 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1962 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
1907 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1996 Sultanate; Islamic absolute monarchy Hereditary succession
1975 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
2003 Emirate; absolute monarchy Hereditary succession
1983 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1979 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1979 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1992 Kingdom; Islamic absolute monarchy Hereditary succession
1978 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1978 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1968 Kingdom; absolute monarchy Hereditary succession
1974 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
2007 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1970 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1978 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
1971 Elective monarchy Chosen by Federal Supreme Council from rulers of Abu Dhabimarker
1688 Kingdom Hereditary succession directed by constitution
Theocratic elective monarchy Chosen by College of Cardinals

Previous monarchies

  • The Chinese Empire - last Imperial Chinese rule was by the Qing Dynastymarker 清朝 1644–1912 - During its reign, the Qing Dynasty became highly integrated with Chinese culture. However, its military power weakened during the 1800s, and faced with international pressure, massive rebellions and defeats in wars, the Qing Dynasty declined after the mid-19th century. The Qing Dynasty was overthrown following the Xinhai Revolution, when the Empress Dowager Longyu abdicated on behalf of the last emperor, Puyi, on February 12, 1912.
  • The Korean Empiremarker (Korean: 대한제국, Hanja: 大韓帝國) from 1897 to 1910 - was a former empire of Koreamarker that succeeded the Joseon Dynastymarker that ruled the nation over the past 500 years. On August 22, 1910, the Korean Empire was annexed by Japanmarker with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, beginning a 35-year period of Korea under Japanese rule.
  • British America was ruled by the monarchy of the United Kingdommarker from 1607 until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, spanning the early reign of King James I and King George III, who is best remembered as king of the American colonies. Although the United States declared independence from the British Crown on July 4, 1776, Britain continued its war against the colonies until the Treaty of Paris thereby ending British authority towards the colonies from the British Crown.
  • 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 (into which it was officially changed by the establishment of the Constitution of May 3, 1791) which was the first Monarchy with constitution in the world (second constitution ever after United States). 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 Kingdommarker. 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 Britainmarker. 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.
  • Francemarker, several times during the 19th century. Napoléon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor of the French in what was ostensibly a constitutional monarchy, though modern historians often class his reign as a military dictatorship. The Bourbon Restoration (under Louis XVIII and Charles X), the July Monarchy (under Louis-Philippe), and the Second Empire (under Napoleon III) were also constitutional monarchies, although the power of the monarch varied considerably between them.
  • The German Empiremarker 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, Iranmarker was a constitutional monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, which had been originally established during the Persian Constitutional Revolution in 1906.
  • Portugalmarker until 1910 when Manuel II was overthrown by a military coup.
  • Kingdom of Serbiamarker, until 1918, when it merged with the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs into the unitary Yugoslav Kingdom, that was led by the Serbian dynasty of Karadjordjevic
  • Mexicomarker 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.
  • Brazilmarker from 1815 (United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves) until 1822, with the proclamation of independence and rise of the Empire of Brazilmarker by Pedro I of Brazil. The empire ended in 1889, when Pedro II was deposed by a military coup.
  • Hawai i was a constitutional monarchy from the unification of the smaller independent chiefdoms of O ahu, Maui, Moloka i, Lāna i, and the Hawai i (or the "Big Island") in 1810 until the overthrow of Queen Lili uokalani in 1893 by conspirators from United States.
  • The Grand Duchy of Finland was a constitutional monarchy though its ruler, Alexander I, was simultaneously an autocrat and absolute ruler in Russiamarker.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary. In 1848–1849 and 1867–1918 as part of Austria-Hungary. In the interwar period (1920–1944) Hungarymarker remained a constitutional monarchy without a reigning monarch.
Prior to the Korean Empire, several dynastic rulers of Goguryeo, Silla, Baekje, Balhae and Goryeo claimed the right to imperial status and used imperial titles at one time or another.

Other situations

See also


  1. Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws. Legal Classics Library, 1924.
  3. 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.


  • 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.

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