Democracy Saves the King

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At a recent conference on modern monarchy in London, Princeton University professor David Cannadine observed that monarchy “has not been a growth industry” over the last century, and that most of the monarchies that have disappeared were authoritarian in nature. Data from Freedom in the World support this notion, which should serve as both a warning and a spur to democratic reform for the few authoritarian monarchies that remain, especially in the Middle East. But the transition to democracy need not be a matter of mere survival: monarchies already in the democratic camp seem to excel, scoring disproportionately well among the world’s free countries.

The kingdoms and emirates of the Arab world have so far weathered the wave of popular uprisings that began last year, faring much better than their republican counterparts. They have employed a mixture of authoritarian crackdowns, as in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and minor democratic concessions, as in Morocco. Many of them also benefit from ample energy wealth, and perhaps from the fact that they do not insult their people with sham presidential elections.

But public demands for political reform are not going away, and these hereditary rulers will eventually need to yield more power to freely elected officials. Those who do so can look forward to diamond jubilees like that of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II last month, which featured heartfelt public celebrations of her 60 years on the throne. Those who refuse risk going the way of the Russian tsar, the shah of Iran, and most recently, the autocratic king of Nepal.

The toppling of so many authoritarian dynasties over the last century has left a world dominated by republics, but also a monarchical minority dominated by democracies. Of the 43 monarchies covered by Freedom in the World, a full 25—58 percent—are in the Free category. By contrast, only 45 percent of countries in the world at large are Free. Assessed in terms of population, nearly 63 percent of those living in monarchies today enjoy a Free political and civil environment, compared with 43 percent of the global population.

The data also suggest that there is more at work here than the pruning away of authoritarian monarchies. Nineteen of the 25 monarchies in the Free category receive the best possible ratings, on a one-to-seven scale, for both political rights and civil liberties. Only 29 of the 60 Free republics do the same.

Note: The Freedom Rating is the average of a country’s ratings for political rights and civil liberties, both on a 1–7 scale.

Do democratic monarchies counterintuitively confer some special benefit that their republican counterparts often lack? This is an open question. Speaking at the London conference in June, Harvard University professor Maya Jasanoff noted that there has been little serious study of the possible attractions of monarchy for residents of the former British Empire in particular, where 15 countries outside the United Kingdom—including nine with top Freedom House ratings—have retained Elizabeth II as head of state.

Constitutional monarchs, and the traditions and precedents they symbolize, may serve as a brake on the ambitions of ruling parties and a reminder that all parties, as they alternate in government, must serve a higher national interest. It is not insignificant that powerful executive officials like Britain’s prime minister are obliged to ritually humble themselves on a regular basis, which could be more effective in checking self-aggrandizement than abstract references to public service. Nonpartisan presidents in parliamentary republics are meant to play a similar unifying role, but as elected officials with limited terms, they are vulnerable to political capture by the ruling party—as has occurred recently in Hungary, for instance. They are also a bit too bland to inspire awe, humility, or a strong bond with the public.

Even if modern constitutional monarchies are not a cause of democratic practices, they do seem to be a result of high-performing democratic political cultures characterized by legal continuity, compromise, self-limitation, suspicion of radicalism, and regular, moderate adjustments and policy corrections. Only the adaptive stability offered by democracy could have carried such an ancient and fragile institution as monarchy through the great changes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Meanwhile, most of that era’s autocratic monarchies, rigid and ham-fisted, forced their people to endure repressive stagnation followed by revolutionary upheaval, both of which often have lasting negative effects. Many of the republics that replaced these regimes are still suffering the consequences. Russia is a prime example.

It is worth noting that the bulk of today’s undemocratic monarchies emerged from colonial rule only a few decades ago, limiting their exposure to history’s crosswinds.

The current monarchies of the Middle East, all of which are rated either Not Free or Partly Free in Freedom in the World, would do well to follow the path set by their Free peers. Some are better positioned to do so than others. Kuwait’s feisty parliament has increasingly butted heads with the emir, and last year’s modest reforms in Morocco ensure that the prime minister comes from the leading parliamentary party. But Saudi Arabia, the only monarchy at the bottom of the seven-point scale on both political rights and civil liberties, still has no elected legislature, simmering political tensions, and elderly crown princes who have been dying even before they take the throne. It is a kingdom without a plan, and the other Gulf monarchies should look elsewhere for sources of emulation.

Absolute monarchs have relatively little to fear from reforms. If he yields political power gracefully and in a timely manner, a king can keep his throne and ensure the position of his heirs. A republican dictator who bows to reforms can look forward to retirement at best. Most importantly, a democratizing monarch may spare his country years of turmoil, and set positive precedents for political behavior that last for generations.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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