|There must be a reason
Half of the original members of the European Union are monarchies
December 4, 2002
Jacob Cohen asked "Face it what is a constitutional Monarch? A king who
gets paid for doing nothing, a welfare recipient." As a happy resident of one
constitutional monarchy (the Netherlands) and a past resident of another (New Zealand),
I would like to try to explain the wisdom of a system which many Americans seem to
One has first to suppose that people, by and large, are not completely stupid. Of
the 12 older members of the EU, 6 have constitutional monarchies and 6 have presidential
systems. People can look over the fence and draw comparisons, and there is hardly
a voice raised in the constitutional monarchies for switching to a presidential system.
There must be a reason.
The first advantage of having a constitutional crown is that one doesn't have an
elected president -- so real power is vested in a cabinet, and the leader of the
government has to continually ensure support in cabinet and the party caucus and
in parliament. It leads to more consultative, rational decision-making, and it makes
it possible to oust the leader between elections if he or she really loses it --
either by a cabinet coup, by electing a new leader at the party caucus, or by Members
of Parliament crossing the floor in parliament.
The monarch, by theoretically holding "supreme power" (including head of
the armed forces, of the civil services etc) but not exercising power, prevents any
other single person within the system claiming that power. It would be lesse majesteit,
really not done old chap. But the monarch cannot have the ambition to actually exercise
power, because he or she has not a shred of a mandate: they are there by a trick
of fate, like jury members.
As soon as you elect your presidents, they start to feel they have some sort of mandate
for political action, as well as having all that power. So presidential systems tend
to slide towards giving some actual power to the President. France is an example
-- both parliament & government on the one hand, and the president on the other,
have democratic mandates, and they are continually struggling about who gets what,
and who is to blame. With two elected organs, there is less accountability to the
voters and less rationality in decision-making.
The second advantage of a constitutional monarchy is that one doesn't
have periodic presidential elections, during which the office of president becomes
the subject of a party political tug-of-war. One still has a period of campaigning
for parliamentary elections, and the process of forming a government coalition after
the elections, but during this period the monarch is there as titular head, and the
ministers of the outgoing government can continue to provide routine leadership to
their ministries -- without any mandate to make policy changes -- because they are
in theory the Queen's ministers.
In any parliamentary system, there is a point after the election results are known,
when someone must be designated the winner and asked to form the next government.
The parliamentary system being cyclical, it comes to a sort of still point at the
top of the cycle where it needs a bit of a push -- a point where someone outside
the parliament has to formally draw the conclusion that the election results indicate.
You can give this job to an elected president who represents one or other party,
or to a supreme court judge who may have been appointed by one of the contestants
in the election, or to a hereditary monarch who has been kept out of party politics
from birth. Guess which is best.
How does this apply to Iran? I don't know, that is for the Iranians to decide. I
do know that it is not so difficult to dispose of a monarchy, but practically impossible
to recreate one. Perhaps the point has already been reached at which the Qajar and
Pahlavi pretenders are both non-options.
This is a matter of weighing the political balance:
the democratic movement needs to achieve broad support, beyond the intelligensia
and diaspora, and two constituencies might feel reassured if change came with a monarchial
stamp -- a rural and lower class constituency and others who look back with nostalgia
at the pre-revolution days, and some clergy with a leaning towards the varieties
of Shiah political theology that legitimated the (Safavid and Qajar) monarchy.
But a monarchy in any form would frighten others. If the monarchial option is closed,
Iran will have to make do with the next best thing, a parliamentary system with an
elected president, and a constitution to resolutely limit the president's powers.
It can be made to work (in Israel, for example) but to my mind it is a second best.
Or it may go for third best, an American presidential system in which the local representatives
(House of Representatives) have only legislative power, and the executive is only
under the sovereignty of the people once every few years, in a take-it-or-leave-it
hope there are people in the Iranian democratic movement who are thinking clearly
about what sort of democracy it they want, and which would be most practical and
stable in the first years. A constitutional monarchy can also play a role in oiling
the hinge between religious tradition and culture on the one hand, and political
modernism and rationalism on the other, as in the English constitution (which also
combines an established church with complete equality and freedom of conscience --
another paradox for the American mind, but that is another story).
Bahaullah, one of Iran's great political thinkers said: "Although a republican
form of government benefits all the peoples of the world, yet the majesty of kingship
is one of the signs of God. We do not wish that the countries of the world should
remain deprived of this. If the wise combine the two forms into one, great will be
their reward in the presence of God."
Wise advice, but is it practicable in Iran, in 2002?
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