25 April 2011

Monarchies and Theocracies

There are only ten self-styled monarchies in the world that are national, hereditary, and have genuine political power. There are seventeen more monarchs who are national hereditary monarchs, who have an overwhelmingly symbolic role with real power vested in a democratic government. The Pope, the Supreme Leader of Iran, and one of the co-princes of Andorra arguably fit the model of theocracy. The only women in this group are Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Many of the places with monarchies, with or without genuine power, and two of the three arguable theocracies, are mere city-states or postage stamp countries with little more territory that a decent sized U.S. county, small populations, and dependent relationships on nearby sovereign states.

All but one of the monarchies where the monarch has genuine political power, and Iran, the only significant sized theocracy, are Islamic. Most of these monarchies rely on oil wealth to maintain their supremacy. Swaziland is the only non-Islamic monarchy with genuine political power.

The shrinkage is notable, given the fact that less than two hundred years ago monarchs with genuine political power were the modal for of government in the world, and less than five hundred years ago you could count the number of democracies in the world on your fingers.

Yet, there is a case to be made that nations with constitutional monarchies have fared better than purely republican governments, by providing a unifying symbol and smoothing over moments of constitutional crisis. It is notable that none of the absolutist regimes to fall in North Africa and the Middle East in the last few months have been monarchies, which suggests that the legitimacy conferred by a monarchy may have practical value to a regime. Some of these monarchies, such as Jordan's King, have, however, taken steps to liberalize democratic components of their regimes. The West has pushed for decades, mostly to deaf ears, for the few remaining monarchies in which a monarch has genuine political power to cede more power to democratic forces via constitutional monarchy. There are other non-democratic governments in the world, of course, but most of pure dictators.

Hereditary Constitutional Monarchs

There are seventeen purely symbolic constitutional monarchs who a monarchs of thirty-two countries and their dependent territories, excluding the three countries discussed under theocracy in this post, and excluding some subnational constitutional monarchs of Africa and Asia (these exist or have existed in relatively recent times, in parts of Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa). There were also, in recent history, territorial leaders who amounted to monarchs in parts of Northwestern Pakistan who are not considered.

Queen Elizabeth II, whose second in line to the throne grandson William is scheduled to marry Kate Middleton this Friday is the constitutional monarch of sixteen different countries, some outside Europe, an almost entirely symbolic role. The nine other almost purely symbolic constitutional monarchs of Europe are King Albert II of Belgium, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein (population 34,761; 62 square miles), Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg (population 491,775; 998 square miles), Prince Albert II of Monaco (population 32,965; 1 square mile), Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (population 16,715,999; 16,033 square miles), King Harald of Norway, King Juan Carlos I of Spain (population 40,525,002; 194,897 square miles), and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

These monarchs have a presence in the Americas in Canada, Greenland, Belize, and a number of Caribbean island dependencies of European countries.

There are six Asian symbolic constitutional monarchs: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel of Bhutan, King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, Emperor Akihito of Japan, King Mizan Zainal Abidin of Malyasia (elected for a limited term as premier king out of pool of regional hereditary monarchies of Malaysia), King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (population 65,905,410; 198,457 square miles) and King Siaosi Tupou V of Tonga (population 120,898; 289 square miles).

There is one African symbolic constitutional monarch, King Letsie III of Lesotho (population 2,130,819; 1,720 square miles), a small landlocked state surrounded entirely by South Africa.

In practice, all of the symbolic constitutional monarchies are republics with elected officials who hold real political power. In each of these, the elected government, if supported by a popular referendum, could in practice, become monarchies in a bloodless or near bloodless change of form of government.

Genuine Monarchs

There are ten monarchs in the world (excluding six subnational monarchs in these monarchies) with genuine political power, many of which rule only tiny states.

There are two African monarchs with genuine political power: King Mswati III of Swaziland (population 1,123,913; 6,704 square miles) carved out of South Africa on its border with Mozambique, and King Mohammed VI of Morocco (population 34,859,364; 172,414 square miles).

There is one East Asian monarch with genuine political power: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, a tiny nation that is basically a city-state (population 388,190; 2,228 square miles) on the island of Borneo that is entirely surround by Malaysia and also shares the island with Indonesia.

The remaining seven monarchs with genuine political power are found on the Arabian Pennisula: King Hamad ibn Isa of Bahrain (population 727,785; 257 square miles), King Abdullah II of Jordan (population 6,342,948; 35,637 square miles), Emir Sabah al-Ahmad of Kuwait (population 2,691,158; 6,880 square miles), Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman (population 3,418,085; 82,031 square miles), Emir Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar (population 833,285; 4416 square miels), King Abdullah bin Abdul‘aziz of Saudi Arabia (population 28,686,633; area 830,000 square miles), and President Khalifa bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (population 4,798,491; 32,278 square miles). The United Arab Emirates also has six other subnational Emirs, but the post of leading Emir does not rotate as it does the premier kingship in Malaysia.

The territory ruled by these seven Arabian monarchs in contiguous. Saudi Arabia, is by far the largest geographically, has by far the largest population of this group, has the most powerful military of the group, has shown that at least one of the others (Bahrain) is dependent upon it by militarily propping it up earlier this year, has the most aggregate wealth, and is home to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Collectively, they control all of the Arabian Pennisula except Yemen. Sucession in Saudi Arabia is not strictly hereditary - a monarch is chosen by the royal family collectively from a group of men closely related to the King, rather than by automatic succession to a particular individual. This may be the case in some of the other monarchies of the region.

All of the monarchs with genuine political power are men.

In addition, North Korea, by virtue of an imminent second successive father to son transfer of power as an absolute dictatorship, comes close to being a monarchy where the monarch has genuine political power in practice, despite the fact that this has not been how the regime has chosen to characterize itself so far.


Vatican City (population 826, 0.17 square miles) under the rule of Pope Benedict XVI, and Iran under Shi'ite cleric and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are the only theocracies in the world, defined as states in which significant sovereign temporal power resides in a non-hereditary religious leadership. Both of them are men.

The Pope has absolute power when living although he is expected to stay within the boundaries of a nearly two thousand year old religious tradition and under a collective church leadership between the death of one Pope and the election of another by a college of Cardinals. The Pope's authority over Vatican City is a minor part of his overall responsibilities as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and Vatican City, in practice, exists only with the consent and cooperation of the government of the Italian Republic that surrounds it.

Iran has an elected unicameral legislature and an elected President and parliament, selected in elections that are not free and fair, and are subject to significant religious and political interference through limitations on those who are eligible to be candidates, restrictions on speech and debate, and tampering with election results. But, Iran's elections are also not those of an absolutely dictatorial state in which there is only a single choice that is a foregone conclusion for every political office. The Supreme Leader controls the military, the police, the judiciary, the state owned media, war and peace level foreign affairs, and half of a Council of Guardians that controls ballot access and acts of a constitutional court with a constitution that incorporates Islamic law. The Supreme Leader also appoints an Assembly of Experts made up of clerics who theoretically are a check on the Supreme Leaders authority with the power to remove him from office and direct his decisions, and in fact are little more than a Shi'ite College of Cardinals or a corporate board of directors. Arguably, Iran's Supreme Leader who has held power since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that deposed the Shah is simply a dictator or elective monarch in the mold of a President for Life who has devolved some political power. The Supreme Leader does not clearly seem to have a hereditary successor in mind.

There are other states with established religions that have significant power, but in all of the others there is a secular leadership with far more predominant power than in Vatican City and Iran.

Arguably Andorra (population 83,888; 181 square miles) which is ruled in name by Archbishop Joan Enric Vives SicĂ­lia and French President Nicolas Sarkozy as Co-Princes, neither hereditary and symbolically only, fits the bill of a theocracy as well, but it is really a unique arrangement, that is closest to a constitutional monarchy in practice.

Other Non-Democratically Ruled Areas

There are many dictators in the world, some of whom are relatives of the prior dictators, who do not claim monarch status and are not as close to a de facto monarchy as North Korea.

There are also many countries which formally have some form of Republic that are neither entirely democratic with free and fair elections and a secure rule of law, nor entirely dicatorial and authoritarian. These flawed democracies rule much of the world's territory and population. Some like China, are one party states where power is not totally concentrated in a supreme leader and there is non-hereditary succession, but there are strong restrictions on political activity. Others are democracies acting in the shadow of military authority that poses a genuine check and influence on the elected officials who formally rule, countries in the process of transitioning to new democratic regimes (e.g. South Sudan and Egypt), and countries organized on a republican basis with elections but not free and fair ones.

There are also many colonies and dependencies and territories of otherwise democratic regimes that lack democratic self-government or full democratic self-government.

Finally, there are a few pockets of the world, such as parts of Somolia today, and parts of Afghanistan prior to 2002, that are effectively stateless, because no governmental arrangement, other than illegitimate petty warlords, has authority in a particular area.

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