There must be a reason

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 find unintelligible.

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 choice.

I 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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