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World: Can Monarchy Survive In The 21st Century?

  • Ben Partridge

London, 22 February 1999 (RFE/) - There are 25 ruling monarchs in the world today -- 10 in Europe, eight in Asia and the Pacific, four in the Middle East and Central Asia and three in Africa.

These "royals" range from the informal, bicycle-riding Scandinavians and Belgians to the highly political monarchs of the Middle East, to the distant and quasi-divine monarchs of East Asia.

These monarchs reign in diverse ways -- as absolute monarchs, constitutional monarchs or as mere ornaments of state.

That kings and queens should exist at all in the late 20th century -- in the age of the common man -- is a testament to the resilience of one of the oldest of all systems of government, dating back 6,000 years.

The word "monarchy" comes from the Greek "monarkhia," or rule of one, and it means the undivided sovereignty of a single person.

Interestingly, of the 15 members of the European Union, eight countries are today still monarchies and show few signs of becoming republics.

Republicans say the monarchy is an undemocratic anachronism, a medieval leftover inappropriate to modern times. Many intellectuals scoff at the mystical, irrational pretensions of royalty, saying the idea of a king or queen at the apex of a hierarchical society runs counter to the values of most people today.

Other critics reject the habits of deference, rank and snobbery often bred by a monarchical system, and its weakness for palaces, jewels and excess. Even so, millions prefer to live under a monarchy than any other system or, at least, they have little inclination to change the system they inherited.

For many Japanese, Scandinavians and Britons, the monarchy is still the focus of their nations' identities, linking the present with the past, embodying its history and culture and serving as a symbol of national sentiment. At times of national emergency, the nation often looks to the monarchy for guidance.

Elizabeth the Second, Queen of England, tried to raise the morale of the nation just before the 1991 Gulf War when she said:

"It seems to me there is one deep, overriding anxiety for us all, on which we should reflect today. That is the threat of war in the Middle East. The servicemen in the Gulf who are serving Christmas at their posts under this threat are much in our thoughts." Anthropologists say societies look for a figure who can act as a focal point for the community, to live out their aspirations and to represent them.

Some political scientists argue that a modern, hereditary, democratic monarchy has one big advantage: the head of state is kept out of politics and can provide an ultimate check on the possible excesses of politicians.

Today, royals still manage to command the attention -- or at least the curiosity -- of millions around the world. When Princess Diana -- the divorced wife of the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles -- died in a road crash in Paris in 1997, 1,000 million people -- one of the largest global TV audiences ever -- watched her funeral on television.

In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, monarchy has survived, whereas -- by an irony of history -- communism, its bitter ideological foe, failed to last the century (outside of China, Cuba and North Vietnam).

Still, the past 150 years have been cruel to royal dynasties. As Shakespeare once wrote: "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."

Most of Europe's major crowned heads -- and many of its minor ones -- have been swept away by revolutionary movements, ideological assaults or wars and their aftermath. The French Bourbons, the German Hohenzollerns and the Austrian Habsburgs have all been brushed aside. Tsar Nicholas the 2nd -- the last of the Romanovs -- was murdered along with his family by Bolshevik revolutionaries at the grimly named House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg in 1918.

King Michael of Romania abdicated in 1947 at communist gunpoint. In Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Georgia, royal families also lost their thrones. China's Manchu dynasty was ousted in 1911. The emperor of Abyssinia and the king of the Zulus have joined the kings of Naples and Sicily as historical curiosities.

One country has bucked the trend: Spain.

King Juan Carlos -- of the Spanish branch of the Bourbons -- was nominated by Francisco Franco to replace him before he died in 1975. Most agree that the establishment of a democratic monarchy in Spain after more than 30 years of fascist rule has been a marked success.

David Brighty -- a former British ambassador to Madrid -- says the democratic politicians who drafted the constitution for the new Spain were vindicated by giving a leading role to the king.

"The aim was to establish a democratic constitutional monarchy. The desire to entrench democracy is self-evident. And the role of the king was to prove vital, especially given the psychological importance of his status as nominal head of the armed forces."

A study, entitled "Modernising the Monarchy" by the British think-tank Demos, says three categories of monarchy still exist in the world today, and they tend to be found in distinct geographical clusters. First, there are monarchies that in every practical sense embody the state. The monarch is de facto head of government, as well as de jure head of state. They are intensely involved in day-to-day politics. These monarchies are mostly located in the Middle East and include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, various other Gulf states and Morocco.

Secondly, there are monarchies that can be described as "above the state." These rely on a quasi-religious authority for their standing and observe a formal, highly ritualistic mode of conduct. Examples are the monarchies of Japan, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

Monarchs in this category tend to be distant from both domestic politics and also from their publics.

The third category is found in the democracies of northern Europe, notably the Benelux nations and the Scandinavian states. Examples include Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (one of the world's richest women, with an estimated fortune of 2,500 million dollars); King Albert of the Belgians; and Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg.

These monarchies tend to have little or no political role of even theoretical consequence. They occupy no religious position of real power or significance. They instead focus exclusively on being symbols of national unity and catalysts for civic activities.

The Netherlands and Denmark both allow direct access by the press and the people to their own popular queens. Queen Margarethe of Denmark gives interviews to dozens of people on the first Monday of every month and walks around shops unmolested.

The British monarchy -- probably the grandest of all surviving monarchies -- is a hybrid of these three models. Although the queen has no power, she retains considerable political authority. She has a religious role as head of the Anglican Church, and her family -- belatedly -- has added a more popular aspect to its traditional duties.

Queen Elizabeth now says:

"I don't think you can stay in London all the time. You have to visit other parts of the country to either find out what is going on or to try to encourage people in different areas, some of which have unemployment, some of which have new factories. I think the possibility of meeting more people is very important. "

Is monarchy viable into the 21st century?

Even monarchists concede there are persuasive arguments for republicanism. Many political theorists argue that civic virtues, intellectual freedom, even military discipline, flourish better under republics than monarchies.

Still, monarchies will likely be around for a long time to come. The late King Farouk of Egypt once predicted that by the end of the 20th century, there would be only five monarchs left in the world: the kings of England, hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades.

With 25 monarchies still in existence, he was wrong.

(The death of Jordan's King Hussein earlier this month attracted intense world interest, not only because of its impact on the Middle East peace process but also because monarchies still possess a powerful fascination and mystical allure. In this report, our correspondent in London profiles an institution that has proven to be remarkably durable.)