Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies

Good Leader, Bad Leader: What Should We Learn From Today’s Monarchies?

A republic has been long considered the most suitable form of government for modern societies. In a republic, typically a representative democracy, the country is considered to be a public matter of all citizens instead of a private concern of a ruler. The foundation of a republican system of government relies on equal voting rights, idealistically leading to a result that represents a majority of citizens, or at least a compromise of the population’s vast opinions.

This is how a representative democracy’s leader and parliament get elected for designated terms. The role, power and the longitude of the president vary among countries, but typically the term is around 4 to 6 years. As the rotation of the seat is fast paced considering the politics involved, the seated leader does not have much time during his/her shift. Even if the president gets re-elected, much time is wasted on superfluous policies that are meant to mend the voters. Maybe due to this, countries have noted that the election turnout rate keeps decreasing. And recently, the wave of populism in many republics has seen a rise of dissatisfaction for leaders and governments, dividing camps while causing headaches to governments. It seems that now more than ever, it is hard to make decisions that would satisfy the domestic audience.

There is a saying that a good monarchy is better than a bad democracy, and it may hold some truth. Monarchies are often considered as old-fashioned, fairy tale-like forms of governments with funny titles, elaborate hats and capital intensive budgets. However, monarchies continue to exist in the modern era, and some, especially those in Europe (Norway, Belgium, Spain for example), have picked up democratic traits with parliaments using the executive force while the monarch is mainly a representative institution. Still, the criticism against monarchies tend rise from time to time, largely due to two factors: money and privilege. For example, the British royal family’s lavish lifestyle has not been cheap for the tax-payers, which has been cited often as a reason to abolish the system. The image of privileged, lazy, scandal causing royals demanding special treatment while not contributing to the society, has been causing fury from Thailand to Sweden.

Against a popular belief, the constitutional monarchies seem to be actually richer and wealthier than other forms of governments. As can be seen (table 1 below), the constitutional monarchies have an average GDP per capita around 29 000 dollars, whereas the one for other countries is around 12,500 dollars. Although the wealth and life expectancy may be partly due to monarchies like Belgium or Sweden being developed, old countries that have accumulated wealth throughout the history, there may be other rationale explaining this phenomenon.

As for the criticism of the monarchies being lazy, self-invested and expensive, there is a variety among monarchies as much as there is among republics. The image of laziness may be affected by the dissimilarity of the royals work to our daily tasks; however, hardly any 91-year old woman works as the Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom does. The cost and shamelessness depend largely on what has been decided; the Nordic monarchies, for example, hold relatively smaller budgets (similar to European presidents) than their British counterparts.

Also, against the popular view, monarchies may prove to be even more democratic than the representative democracies. An odd argument favoring the democracy of monarchic system can be found from a research by Cambridge University.  It shows how in constitutional monarchies the most common practice after a government’s failure was a call for new elections, whereas for republics it was more common to find a non-electoral replacement by the parliament’s initiative. The direct elections give a chance for the public to make their opinions heard rather than a decision made behind closed doors.

Also, as the monarch is the head of a country through accession, not a vote, he or she is legitimately outside of the everyday politics, and therefore less affected by party politics’ effects or lobbying. It is this distance from everyday politics that keeps a monarch more impartial (although not always so). On the other hand, especially directly elected presidents, like those in Ireland or Finland, tend to get tangled to the daily politics as they feel most justified (by being directly chosen by the people) to do so. This threatens to lead to partisan ties, polarization, and changes of the national agenda after each presidential election. As the representatives change often, party politics is visibly present. For example, the US presidency has had a Republican in Bush, a Democrat in Obama, and now a Republican in Trump within a time-span of 16 years. The contradiction in the overall domestic and international politics, be it in healthcare, education, Iraq or free trade agreements hinders the effectiveness of the state.

The consistency of a monarchy is more apparent; the ruler sits in his or her post far longer than any president, and has time to think further, without trying to gain short-lived popularity for the public. This far-sightedness provided by time has been argued in the fields of social science, psychology as well as economics as a necessity for good decision-making. In many cases, monarchs with long reign tend to look overarchingly for long-term development of the international community whilst making decisions based on their earlier experience. For example, the King of Jordan, Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, has been actively balancing his domestic politics, slowly transforming the government into a kingdom with a parliament.

In some, exceptional cases, monarchy may even be necessary for stabilizing the country. According to political scientist Victor Menaldo, during the 1950s to 2006, monarchies were the most stable form of government in the Middle East. This phenomenon is explained by the natural position above the normal society: the monarch is not a member of any competing group, but rather a natural arbitrator for the people. The monarch must also keep the society in check for the longevity and prosperity of the kingdom. Sometimes, as in the case of the Spain’s military coup in 1981, the king takes heavy responsibilities and makes unpopular decisions that the president would not, to ensure the stability of the kingdom.

Lastly the importance of the monarchs can be seen in the cohesion and integration that they bring; monarchs and royal families as a constitution, serve as a ‘national symbol’ similarly to an anthem or a flag. The symbol gives people within its boundaries a feeling of togetherness and mitigate the division between different interest groups -something that the current republics are desperately in need of.

So it seems, that while pure representative presidential democracies have an image of an effective equality, the highly politicized, structured system with short sighted leaders creates ineffectiveness. On the other hand monarchies, which have been long deemed old fashioned, have surprisingly been developing well, holding uniform within the state despite possible political turmoil. Although not all monarchies are good and long-term leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, it seems to be democracies turn to reform their systems and pick up some already effective practices from monarchies for their own benefit.

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