What is a monarchy?

A popular misconception is to define a republic as the opposite of a monarchy. According to this line of reasoning any non-monarchist government would be automatically a republic. This is, however, a fallacy.

The definition of a republic is not depended on what title the head of state has, but on the idea of mixed government. If, however, we would proceed with defining a republic as a form of government without a monarch, then we should provide a definition of what a monarchy is. In this post we will attempt to work out what a monarchy is.

A popular definition of a monarch is that of a head of state who has inherited his or her position, instead of by election. This conception is, however, wrong. Throughout history monarchs has been elected, and in Malaysia the monarch is still assigned by election. And Sweden and Denmark were elective monarchies until the sixteen century. In the past elective monarchies were the rule. And only when members of the same family were elected as monarch generation after generation, these monarchies transformed from elective to hereditary ones.

Instead we could better look at the literal meaning of monarchy, which is Classical Greek for “the rule by one”. Thus a monarchy is system of government in which all power is concentrated in one person. The Greeks did classify forms of government by the number of people who had power, hence we get: the rule by one (monarchy), the rule by the few (oligarchy) and the rule by many (democracy).

Aristotle did not only categorize forms of governments by the quantity of people, but also by quality. For every number, there was a good and bad version. According to Aristotle monarchy was a good form, and tyranny was its bad correspondent. Whether a form was good or bad, is dependent on whether the ruler(s) did pursue the general interest (res publica in Latin), or their own interests. Those rulers who pursued the general interest are, of course, the good ones, whilst those who only pursued their own interests are the bad ones.

The problem the Greeks were facing was the fact that a good government could become corrupted, i.e. turn into a bad one. A monarchy could become a tyranny. Usually such a transition happens gradually overtime.

Important to note is that the Greek definition does not depend on how a monarch gets his/her position. Election, appointment or inheritance doesn’t matter, the number of people with power does. Only pure absolute monarchies are quite rare, and have been throughout history. In most governments there are several institutions, each with their own amount of power.

A more practical approach can be found in the political philosophy of John Locke. According to Locke government can be divided into three branches: legislative, executive and federative (this is foreign policy) power. Whether a state is a monarch, an oligarchy or a democracy, depends on the composition of the legislative power. If the legislature is consists of only one person, then this state is a monarchy in Locke’s view.

However, in most countries the legislative power is assigned to an assembly of (elected) people, rather than to just a single person. In constitutional monarchies, the monarch is, however, involved in the legislative process in several ways. First, laws can be proposed by the king, and secondly the King has to sign any law passed by the legislature.

When we study the legislative process of a state, we have to ask how has the right of initiative (the right propose bills). In many constitutional monarchies both the king and the members of parliament can propose bills. This is not necessarily the case, and most upper chambers have no right of initiative and are only allowed to vote on the bills. Hence we can have a legislature which can only vote on bills proposed by the king.

Related to the right of initiative is the right of amendment. Even if a legislature cannot introduce its own bills, it might propose amendments to those bills introduced by the king. Both the right of initiative and the right of amendment shift power from the king to parliament. And if these rights are absent, the position of the king is strengthened.

Even if a parliament has the right of initiative and the right of amendment, then there is issue whether the king might veto a bill. If the king has veto power, can it can either be absolute or suspensive. In the first case, if the king refuses to sign the bill as passed by parliament, it’s game over for that bill. In the second case, if the king refuses to sign a bill, then parliament has to reconsider the bill. But if parliament still upheld its bill, then the king looses.

Finally we have to consider whether the king might dissolve the legislature. It can be that a parliament refuses to pass any bill proposed by the king, in that situation (s)he can do two things: either (s)he accepts his/her defeat or (s)he dissolves the legislature and calls for a new election. By doing so the king can try to change to membership of parliament, in the hope of securing a majority for his/her bill.

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4 thoughts on “What is a monarchy?”

  1. Interesting. My understanding of a republic is that of a nation governed by the rule-of-law as opposed to rule-by-edict (i.e. any form of autocracy including monarchies), and that democracy further defines this dichotomy.

    Contrasting examples of republics: The UNITED STATES is a republic based on representative democracy. IRAN is a republic based on theocracy (Shiite Islamic law).

    Contrasting examples of non-republics: The UNITED KINGDOM is a constitutional monarchy based on representative democracy. SAUDI ARABIA is an absolute monarchy based on theocracy (Sunni Islamic law).

    1. “My understanding of a republic is that of a nation governed by the rule-of-law as opposed to rule-by-edict (i.e. any form of autocracy including monarchies), and that democracy further defines this dichotomy.”

      I agree with you that rule-of-law is essential to the definition of a republic. Hence the dichotomy between republics and monarchies is a false one, since an non-monarchist authoritarian regime (such as a military junta) would not meet the requirement of rule-of-law.

  2. Tell me friend, in a case like ours where the president has to assent to bills before they become law, can return bills to parliament and even dissolve parliament, which would lead to a general election, how would we refer to such a system?

    1. Given that such system closely resembles a constitutional monarchy, we could call such a system an elective monarchy, if you want. However, a president in contrast to a king is elected/appointed for a certain term rather than life, and can be hold accountable for his action, even after leaving office. But in Malaysia the king is elected for a five-year-term. Your question demonstrates that the difference between monarchy and republics is not that easy, as many often think.

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