Constitutional monarchies are a system of government where there is still a sovereign serving as the head of the government in some way. How they can legally interact with the rest of the government, which are typically elected officials, depends on what the country’s constitution (written or unwritten) permits. Some monarchs in this situation serve more as a figurehead than an actual head of state, such as the royal family in the United Kingdom. Others effectively serve as their government with substantial powers granted to them, such as Morocco.
Countries like Sweden and Japan are still technically constitutional monarchies because their royal families are still part of the culture, but these individuals have zero formal authority to make any political decisions.
Elective monarchies are also possible under this system of government. Cambodia and Malaysia both function with a small electoral college that elects the ruler for a specific period, giving them similar powers to that of a traditional prime minister or president. It is a structure that may have been invented by the Hittites, but it is a system that was modernized by the Kingdom of England during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Bhutan was the last country to move from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, taking that action in 2008.
List of the Advantages of a Constitutional Monarchy
1. Constitutional monarchies offer a secure form of government.
A constitutional monarchy is less prone to a coup compared to other systems because it offers a dual structure of support. You will have the side that includes all of the elected or appointed officials that govern over legislation and the daily tasks of governing, and then you have the sovereign who serves as the head of state in some capacity. If the people feel that their government is no longer providing them with what they need, then there is the option to elect new officials or petition for a change in appointments.
2. There is a concerted effort to rule from a perspective of centrism.
When there are only 2-3 political parties active in a system of government, then centrism is challenging to find because there is almost always one group with a complete majority in at least one section of the government. When you have a constitutional monarchy, then there is more willingness to compromise because there is another layer of approval that must be obtained before something becomes law in almost all governments. Once an idea is approved by the prime minister or equivalent, then the sovereign must also sign off on what will happen – even if their role is not overly influential in the government.
3. It provides an opportunity to refresh the government periodically.
When politicians can lock themselves into a long-term position of service, then there is no longer the motivation present to stay actively engaged with their representation. Under the structure of a constitutional monarchy, there are opportunities to change up who is seated where. That means you can receive fresh perspectives on different committees, update community representation when necessary, and give the people input in how their nation receives governing. Although the sovereign cannot be voted out in most government structures like this one, every other position could be refreshed periodically to remove the threat of complacency.
4. There is an opportunity to offer governing continuity.
In the United States, there can be a complete transfer of power in every four-year election cycle. The House of Representatives changes every two years. Presidents are given two elections to get their work done in most circumstances. In the structure of a constitutional monarchy, there is more stability than this. Even when the elected officials turn over during an election, the sovereign is still in place to guide the country forward. Because there is always someone familiar at the helm, there tends to be less turmoil in the politics of the country with every election cycle.
5. This structure can help to unify the nation.
People take a great interest in their political leaders because these individuals are a representation of who they are on a global stage. The sovereign in a constitutional monarchy serves in this role. Even if there is political polarization present in society, a simple word from the head of state can help everyone to find the common ground that they need to keep pressing forward. The prime minister (or equivalent) might follow a specific political agenda, but it is the sovereign who tends to follow a path of complete patriotism, no matter what one believes is the best course to take legislatively.
6. A constitutional monarchy helps to support cultural identities.
Did you know that the sovereign who is the head of the United Kingdom serves over a total of 16 different constitutional monarchies? The Commonwealth Realms may allow for extensive self-governing, but it does not change the overall structure of the government either. People keenly identify with their government structure, defining who they are as an individual by the approach they see their political leaders using. If there is an effort to unify and cooperate, then these core values become an essential part of a nation’s cultural identity.
The opposite is also true. People can also define themselves through violence, hypocrisy, lies, and deceit if that is what their government provides to them.
7. It allows for legislative programs to run their course.
When a government sees its leadership turn over frequently, then there are fewer opportunities to create long-term changes within the society. Each new leadership group tends to try to counter the actions of the previous administration by implementing their own ideas. This cycle creates incomplete results each decade because there are so many different changes that occur. When there is a constitutional monarchy in place, the sovereign can oversee the overall structure of the society to ensure that the legislative agenda remains consistent and centrist if desired. This balance gives the country more of an opportunity to experience growth.
8. This structure does not require the active involvement of the sovereign.
Although a constitutional monarchy can grant wide-ranging powers to the sovereign, most governments choose to grant a “reserve power” to this individual or family instead. This process creates a head of state who serves in an ambassadorial role while having the authority to request revisions on any legislative agenda that they feel is inappropriate. It is a process that can also maintain the authority of the government during a leadership transition that extends beyond the regular process. In an emergency situation, constitutional monarchies even provide another layer of leadership that can keep the government functioning and helpful in its oversight role.
List of the Disadvantages of a Constitutional Monarchy
1. A constitutional monarchy requires a sovereign to be of service in some way.
If you are an elected official, then there is an excellent chance that you decided to run for the office to which you were elected. You made the choice to become a public servant. In all but a handful of constitutional monarchies, the sovereign is an individual who earns a birthright into this role instead. It becomes a system of governing where the head of state is determined by their family status and birth order.
Because of this system, even young children are thrown into leadership roles. China’s last emperor was only two years old when placed into his position. Pomare III was King of Tahiti at just 17 months of age. Henry VI was the youngest king in England, crowned at just eight months old. Sobhuza II was King of Swaziland for 82 years, receiving the crown at just four months. Even with regents serving with them, a structure of government which allows children to serve as the head of state is arguably ineffective in what it hopes to do.
2. The government system is present in multiple formats.
Outside of the Commonwealth Realms that all follow a similar system thanks to their connection to the United Kingdom, constitutional monarchies can look very different from one another. Several African nations are technically this form of government, yet the amount of power they provide to the sovereign makes them the defacto rule of the country. Then there is the government structure in Japan where there is no authority at all. When using this governing structure, the flexibility can be beneficial because it can tailor the government to the needs of the nation, but it can also care unintended adversity because one is so different from the other.
3. Powers granted to the sovereign are often unaccountable.
When a constitutional monarchy is operating, the prime minister (or equivalent) can exercise extensive patronage and considerable power. It is typically done in the name of royal prerogative, even offering the ability to appoint or dismiss ministers. When the head of state overrides the primary leader in this governing structure, then there is no legislative control or oversight. If the sovereign says that something needs to be reworked, then everyone starts over from scratch – even if the rest of the government disagrees with what the head of state suggested.
4. Sovereigns can sometimes replace the prime minister or the equivalent.
If there is an election in a constitutional monarchy which does not produce a decisive result, then the sovereign has the power to be involved in the appointment of the person who actively leads the government. Even Queen Elizabeth II has taken this step three times in history: 1957, 1963, and 1974. There is a precedent to dismissing an active prime minister even when holding an absolute majority, such as when Gough Whitlam was dismissed in his role as a representative to the Queen.
This structure of government might offer more stability than others from a legislative standpoint, but that advantage only occurs if the sovereign decides to step back from the work of daily governing.
5. Constitutional monarchies encourage sovereign interference with governing.
Prince Charles and his staff are widely known for their conversations with ministers about the policy issues which are important to them. Civil servants are often asked to brief representatives of the sovereign to ensure that everyone in the royal family stays up-to-date with what happens in the world. It is not unusual for the monarchy to privately interfere with policy negotiations to support an end scheme that meets their expectations, even if it isn’t the most beneficial system for the rest of the people.
Even a leak to the press about potential concerns about governing decisions can be a way to influence the direction of the government. Since that decision can happen arbitrarily, the elected officials can be pressured in unique ways that don’t occur in other government structures.
6. There is no guarantee over the quality of governing.
When there are other government structures for a nation other than a constitutional monarchy, then the people have the authority to vote their leaders out of office if they feel that they are ineffective or lack the skills necessary to lead. When living in a constitutional monarchy, this is not possible for the prime minister or the sovereign. The primary leader is usually elected by the representatives of the party in a process similar to how the Speaker of the House in the U.S. comes to power. The monarch is always present, decided by birthright or family appointment. That means a nation has no guarantee on the quality of leadership they will receive, and there may be nothing that they can do to make changes to it.
7. Sovereigns often pull a substantial salary in a constitutional monarchy.
Even though many of the countries in the Commonwealth Realms are granted the power to self-govern, they pay a substantial annual fee to the royal family each year to support the overall governing structure of this group of countries. Some nations are paying approximately $20 million per year despite receiving minimal governing benefits from their sovereign. Although that cost is typically less than $2 per person, that is still money coming out of the pocket of the average person to support the royalty.
8. Sovereigns typically have no reason to stay neutral.
The idea of a constitutional monarchy is that the head of state should remain a neutral party unless there is a specific need for their expertise in governing. Some governments allow this person to wield more power than others, but it is a principle that remains the same. It is even part of the government structure that the sovereign can pardon people before they face trial, receive immunity from prosecution, and several other benefits which do not apply to the general population. Some powers can even change by a simple decree or order from the sovereign if they want things to change.
9. Constitutional monarchies perpetrate the class system in society.
When there is a class system present in a country, then all power eventually resides in one person. Since the inheritance of this position is usually hereditary, how a person is born becomes the dictation of their life. It is a relic from previous systems where the children took on the job of the parents. If your father was king, then you would likely be a ruler one day. If your family were farmers, then that was what you would become.
The apex of the British constitutional monarchy places the sovereign in charge of the judiciary, requires them to be the Commander in Chief of the military, serve as the Governor for the Church, and still make time to be the Head of State. This privilege extends to other areas of life, such as appointing themselves in the military, earning a chancellorship at a university not earned, and effectively degrading the hard work of others because they want to add another title or award to trophy case.
10. It can continue the oppression of people with no recourse for action.
Moroccan women from poor neighborhoods are stuck in a system of oppression. Women’s rights in the Middle East and Northern Africa have always been challenging in some ways throughout history, but this constitutional monarchy combines authoritarianism, patriarchy, and neoliberalism in ways that bring tremendous harm. From 2011-2013, women were publicly raped without charges, forced into self-immolation, and even worse without any justice being brought to those who were bringing harm to them.
The average income per capita in Morocco is just $4,910. Forbes places the wealth of the sovereign at $2.5 billion.
11. Constitutional monarchies can be challenging to alter without some type of revolution.
Because there are multiple layers of governing in place with a constitutional monarchy, it can be extremely challenging to create the changes that people want for their country. There is so much bureaucracy in place that lodging a complaint or filing a formal objection could take months, if not years, to resolve. Even if grievances are heard, there is no guarantee that changes will occur because of the processes involved. At some point, the problem becomes such a mess that everyone gives up, effectively allowing the sovereign to do whatever they want.
12. The behaviors of the sovereign reflect on the rest of the country.
Because there are only a handful of constitutional monarchies in the world, most people look at the idea of a sovereign without the same levels of pomp and circumstance that they would receive domestically. At best, some nations might look at an ambassadorial trip with amusement instead of the seriousness it sometimes deserves. At some point, the monarchy relies on its history rather than its future to attract more attention to itself. France sees three times more foreign tourists as a republic compared to Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Part of the reason is the fact that much of the entire royal collection is hidden from the public, creating reserve wealth that may never enter the economy.
13. It could be impossible to separate religion from politics in this governing structure.
When the constitutional monarchy is also in charge of the nation’s religion, then it is impossible to separate the two elements of life from one another. There is clear favoritism in place for the government’s religion in this system, especially when the sovereign is seen as the chief ruler for both options. It is even possible to create discriminatory actions against those who refuse to follow the authorized faith because the sovereign can create laws that benefit those who help them to retain power.
The advantages and disadvantages of a constitutional monarchy are often dependent upon the quality of leadership that is present at the top of the government. If the Head of State is looking out for the best interests of their nation, then this governing structure can be extraordinarily effective. When the emphasis of each legislative action is based on the idea of retaining power and building wealth, then the exploitation of the society is the most likely outcome.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.