Source: Composite image by G_marius.
We compare the two most popular forms of government: constitutional monarchy vs republic. We outline their history and analyze the pros and cons of having a monarchy in the twenty-first century. Vote in our poll and tell us more about your preferred system.
Modern democracies can be broadly divided between Constitutional (or Parliamentary) Monarchies and Republics. Each system has slightly different features. The clearest one is the way how the head of state is elected. Monarchs inherit the position (although usually this is validate by the Parliament), while in Republics, presidents are elected directly or indirectly by the people. The choice of model of state has implications in terms of stability, governability, accountability and representation. Are you a monarchist or a republican?
Monarchy vs Republic: a brief history
In order to understand the emergence of these two alternative forms of democracy it is important to look back in history. An important turning point in the way how countries are ruled is most notably associated with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, marked the end of established territorial sovereignty and accelerated the decline of feudalism. The Westphalia peace weakened the power of the Catholic Church in Europe and reinforced the role of monarchs who, hence, controlled the exercise of religion within their boundaries. This opened the period of absolutist rule and absolute monarchs.
However, the era of absolute monarchical authority and the rule of kings did not last long after the establishment of territorial sovereignty. Just as warfare undid the foundations of religious empire, social mobilisation eventually did away with the notion of absolutist rule in favour of popular sovereignty. Britain became a paradigmatic case of the demise of absolute rulers and the empowerment of parliaments. Britain functioned on the basis of an uneasy co-existence between monarchy and parliament, two pillars of British authority and eventually settled into a constitutional monarchy. This meant that the monarch no longer had absolute power, had to govern through parliament and became more figurehead than a ruler, although still retained some powers.
In France, the monarchical system gave way to full democracy in the form of the French Revolution in 1789 and the abolition of the institution of monarchy altogether. In what was a mass revolt, Louis XVI was deposed and a republic based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity was declared in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, giving rise to modern republicanism. The American Revolution or War of Independence from 1776–1783 saw it break away from British rule to establish a federal republic along classic liberal lines.
Ever since most Western countries gradually successfully democratized adopting either the form of a constitutional monarchy (e.g. Belgium, Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, Spain) or a republic (e.g. USA, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Poland). However, the debate monarchy vs republic remains very much alive today.
Pros and cons of a monarchy vs a republic
Advantages of a constitutional monarchy:
- Stability. The head of state is appointed for a very long perdiod of time, usually until she/he abdicates or die. This gives the country more stability in comparison with republics where the head of state changes every few years.
- Education. In a monarchy, the future head of state is known from birth, therefore she/he is raised and educated accordingly. Monarchs are usually well prepared for their role and enjoy a priviledged multidisciplinary education.
- Neutrality. The head of state is not a politician, therefore is not tied to any particular party. She/he can ensure neutrality and balance while in power.
- No election cost. In many countries, the campaign to elect the head of state can be very expensive. In monarchy, succession has little costs.
- Less corruption? Advocates of constitutional monarchy claim that knowing you will serve for a life term reduces the risk of corruption, while an elected politician may feel the urge to take advantage of his position knowing it will not last. Presidents may have shorter term goals and incentives, while the monarch may care more about the long term. After all they want their children to inherit the throne and don't want them to have to face a complicated future.
Disadvantages of a constitutional monarchy:
- Lack of democracy. The head of state is not elected and inherits the position. The citizen have little to say about who will reign, although in most constitutional monarchies the monarchs needs the approval of the Parliament, and therefore, indirectly of the people this institution represents.
- Not every monarch is competent. The head of state may have been prepared to reign, but this does not guarantee that this particular person is suitable and competent for the position. HIstory is full of incompetent, arrongant, tyrannic or careless monarchs.
- Monarchs are people; therefore have personal beliefs and political preferences, often they are quite conservative. Their views and beliefs may be at odds with those of the majority in their country.
- Royal families often have a very expensive lifestyle. In addition to the king or queen, other members of the royalty also receive public salaries and perks. Moreover simply organizing their trips and security is very costly. Although we should keep in mind that presidents and prime ministers in republics are also costly, sometimes more than monarchs.
- More corruption? Sometimes justice is permissive with the abuses of royal families. They are somehow protected because it is not in the interest of the country to see their figures delegitimized. However, this also creates an incentive for members of the royal families to abuse sometimes their status.
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