Despite the name, constitutional monarchy is not exactly a tyrannic form of government that we usually associate the term ‘monarchy’ with. As you go through its characteristics and examples, you will realize that it is quite different from the autocratic form of monarchy, i.e., absolute monarchy.
Did You Know?
For Bhutan, the 2007 – 08 general elections marked the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.
Monarchy in its true form may have become rare today, but it was the most common form of government in the world during the medieval times. Today, 44 sovereign nations across the world have monarchs as their heads of state. Of these, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Swaziland in Africa, and the Vatican in Europe have an absolute monarchy, while the rest have constitutional monarchy.
So monarchies do exist, but one can sense that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the medieval times.
Constitutional Monarchy Characteristics
A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a monarch exercises his powers as the head of state within the parameters of the constitution. The constitution does not necessarily have to be written or codified; it can be unwritten, as in the case of the United Kingdom, as well. In this form of monarchy, the monarch retains his unique position with regards to the legal and ceremonial role, but exercises limited or no political power.
▶ There are two different types of constitutional monarchies:
- Executive constitutional monarchy, where the monarch wields significant power.
- Ceremonial constitutional monarchy, where the monarch holds very little actual power.
As the power of monarchs is limited by the constitution, constitutional monarchies are often called limited monarchies. This is in stark contrast to absolute monarchy, where the monarch is not legally bound by any constitution; rather, he has absolute political power over the state and its citizens.
▶ Almost all modern constitutional monarchies have a parliamentary system in which there is a monarch and an elected prime minister. Their respective roles are outlined by the constitution. The monarch can either have ceremonial duties or reserve powers, such as the power to grant pardon, to dismiss a Prime Minister, refuse Royal Assent to legislation, etc. The prime minister, on the other hand, is the head of government and has effective political power. Simply put, it’s a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch.
Note: A constitutional monarchy is a parliamentary monarchy. However, even absolute monarchies have a parliament in place. In Oman, for instance, the Council of Oman is a bicameral parliament, which is assigned the role of helping the government in policy making.
Modern Examples of Constitutional Monarchy
▶ Among modern constitutional monarchies, the United Kingdom is by far the most famous. The UK and its fifteen former colonies, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu, are constitutional monarchies with the King or Queen of the United Kingdom as their head of state and the Westminster system of government. Their reigning constitutional monarch is Queen Elizabeth II.
▶ Other countries that have a constitutional monarchy are Andorra, Bahrain, Belgium, Bhutan, Cambodia, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lesotho, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Thailand, Tonga, and the United Arab Emirates.
▶ The United Kingdom and its fifteen former colonies follow the ceremonial form of constitutional monarchy. So the reigning king or queen of the United Kingdom has very little to do in terms of administration.
▶ As opposed to this, Sweden, Japan, Bhutan, Morocco, etc., have executive constitutional monarchy. In Sweden, the king is the theoretical head of state, while in Japan, the emperor holds the distinction.
In a constitutional monarchy, the head of the state remains the same even if the government changes, and that provides stability which is rarely associated with representative democracy. However, the constitutional monarch must remain politically neutral, doesn’t have the power to pass a legislation, and acts on the advice of elected ministers. The power of a monarch in the modern times is mostly ceremonial. As they say, the Queen reigns, but she does not rule.