Wednesday, August 31, 2016

CastleTalk: A Game of Thrones: How Monarchies Survived Into the 21st Century

The crown of the long-gone Holy Roman Empire
King Farouk of Egypt (1920-1965) once predicted, "Soon there will be only five Kings left - the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds." How wrong he was! Today, there are still 27 ruling monarchs in the world (if I did my maths correctly): Ten in Europe, seven in the Middle East, three in Africa, six in Asia and one in the Pacific. Some of them came to their thrones based on a hereditary system, others were elected to their positions by other sub-national monarchs. While some monarchies go back a thousand years, others were only restored a good 20 years ago. Among them are absolute monarchs, constitutional monarchs and yet other monarchs who are simply ornaments of state without any constitutional role whatsoever. From the bicycle-riding Scandinavians, to the powerful and immensely rich monarchies of the Middle East to the quasi-divine Emperor of Japan - monarchies are highly diverse, to say the least.

For many people today, monarchies are an antiquated relic from a time gone by without any purpose in today's world whatsoever. No matter your stance on it, you have to admire that such a dinosaur of history has managed to survive even the first 16 years of the 21th century and still seems to go strong. It's been almost 100 years since the last large-scale abolishments of monarchies in Europe by the people. (The end of the Balkan monarchies after World War II being forced more by the Soviets than the populations of the countries.) The last European monarchies to be abolished were Malta (as part of the Commonwealth) and Greece (with its own royal family), both in 1974.

This was followed by the abdication of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. The next (non-Commonwealth) and last monarchy to be abolished was Nepal in 2008. The royal family had made headlines around the world seven years earlier after a massacre, in which Crown Prince Dipendra reportedly shot and killed ten people, including his father King Birendra. Needless to say, it was the beginning of the end. Although naturally historically much less common, the same period of time also saw the restoration of two monarchies, in Spain (1975) as well as in Cambodia (1993).

From the United Arab Emirates to Norway to Japan - looking at the world's surviving monarchies, there does not seem a unifying sure formula for the success of a monarchy. On the one hand of the spectrum, we have the liberal Swedes and on the other hand, there are the ultra-traditional and conservative Saudi Arabians. Yet looking a little more closely, it seems there are three groups you can fit most monarchies in - and (not very) surprisingly, these three categories can be used to group those three regions in the world with the most monarchies.

The first group are the monarchies were the head of state isn't only its head but the state. The monarch embodies tremendous (sometimes even absolute) power and is involved in day-to-day politics. In addition to being head of state, the monarch is also virtually the head of government (though one of his relatives might have that position in name). Today, we find these kind monarchies in the Arab world: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman to name them.

The second group are countries were the monarchs play largely ceremonial roles. While some of the them might still wield some power, like signing laws into effect, there are largely there to represent and to be unifying symbol for the nation. These monarchies can be found largely in Europe, especially in Norway, Denmark and Sweden as well as the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg but also the United Kingdom and Spain with the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein, the last relic of the Holy Roman Empire, being the only place were the monarchical head of state still has very real powers.

The third group are the monarchies of Asia (and the ones I admittedly know least). While the monarchies of the first group are close to power and the monarchies of the second group close to the people, the monarchies of the third group seem rather far removed from both. From the Japanese Tenno (heavenly sovereign) to the Dragon King of Bhutan: They fly high above the state and their heads are treated like almost saintly figures. (Other monarchies in Asia include Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand.)

With all three approaches being very different, it remains to seen which one will be the most successful one in the future. In many of the countries of the first group, the national wealth and oil revenue probably plays a rather large role. As long as you can provide the people with a rather high standard of living, the chances of them wanting to get rid of monarchy is on the slim side. However, if the oil and wealth run out, the system standing behind the monarchies is naturally the most endangered (for lack of a better word) one. It's no surprise that, despite their differences, these monarchies came together during the time of the Arab Spring to foster their relation and thus strengthen the monarchy. [I can only recommend you to read "How Middle Eastern monarchies survived the Arab Spring" by Sean Yom/Washington Post on the matter.]

I know too little about the Asian monarchies to give a prospect of what might be happening there. However, as an educated guess: With the next generation in Thailand, e.g., not being the most, well, well-liked, one wonders what will happen there... Most of the others seem pretty save as of now, after all most of their heads have a quasi-religious status and getting rid of that is another question altogether.

That leaves us with Europe - and the modell of monarchy most Westerners probably prefer. However, it also seems to be the most difficult to evaluate. European monarchies must walk a fine line: They must be transparent because otherwise the public will start to ask questions. Yet, they can't be too transparent as not to lose the little magic from days gone by still left. It seems that if nothing major happens to cause discord, the Euro monarchies are rather safe. After all, why change what works for a future of uncertainty? It's not like transitioning into republican life has been smooth sailing for many former monarchies. In recent years, Spain came closest to the edge though it seems the monarchy is back in more shallow waters after transitioning to King Felipe VI. And in the end, it can only be history who will teach us which approach is the most sustainable.

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