The World’s Strangest Monarchies

 

St Edwards Crown image by MarkMurphy

Monarchy is one of the most basic and simple forms of government humanity has ever devised. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the idea of “I’m in charge and when I die, my oldest son will be in charge” is very intuitive. Societies in every inhabited continent independently devised their own monarchical governments. However, because it was independently developed in so many places, not all monarchies are the same.

King Mswati III image by Amanda Lucidon

Ngwenyama Mswati III of eSwatini

For example, the African nation of eSwatini has two reigning monarchs. These are the Ngwenyama (“Lion”) and Ndlovukazi (“She-elephant”). The Ngwenyama, usually referred to as the “king” by English speakers, is the main ruler of the country, with essentially unchecked power, his word being the law of the land. However, the Ndlovukazi, who is always the king’s mother, has important symbolic and ceremonial powers, and at least in theory, is just as important. If the king is still a minor, his mother will act as his regent until he is old enough to take the throne. When the king dies, one of his many wives will be chosen to be the new Ndlovukazi, and it is her son who will be crowned the new king.

King Salman bin Abdull Aziz of Saudi Arabia image from the US Department of Defense

King Salman bin Abdull Aziz of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s monarchy also had an unusual order of succession until very recently. Since the death of the nation’s founder, Ibn Saud, in 1953, every Saudi king has been one of his sons, with the throne passing from brother to brother. However, that generation is slowly dying out, so in 2017 current King Salman bin Abdull Aziz named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz as his heir. This marks the first time a Saudi king will be succeeded by his own son. This is a major change in a country that, like eSwatini, is an absolute monarchy where all political power is held by the royal family. The King of Saudi Arabia is also the Prime Minister and can enact laws by decree. All the other top government jobs are given to members of the royal family, many of whom also control the country’s many state-owned businesses and have gained fabulous wealth through their positions. In essence, the Saudi royals treat their country as though it’s their personal property.

Fortunately, absolute monarchies like these are quite rare these days. In the modern age where much of the world has embraced democracy as an ideal, most of the world’s monarchs rule constitutional monarchies. These are governments where the monarch’s powers are limited by a constitution that makes them share power with an elected parliament of some kind. The most famous monarch in the world is, of course, a constitutional monarch: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Elizabeth II image by Bill Ingalls

However, her position has its own political strangeness. While we mainly think of her as the Queen of the United Kingdom, she is far, far more than that, thanks to the British Empire.

1915 British Empire Map from britishempire.co.uk

They used to say that the sun never set on the British Empire, and in a sort-of metaphorical way, it still hasn’t. Not only does the United Kingdom continue to govern 14 small colonies – er, “Overseas Territories” – in six continents, there are also 15 countries that are basically independent nations in every way that matters, with their own governments, militaries, and embassies around the world, but still act like British colonies for ceremonial and symbolic purposes. Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu all recognize Elizabeth II as their sovereign. Their politicians, soldiers, police officers, and new citizens all swear an oath of allegiance to her, they all mint her face on their coins, and she appoints a “Governor” or “Governor-General” who acts as her royal representative in these nations. As I’ve mentioned on Cat Flag previously, Australia, New Zealand, and Tuvalu still show the Union Jack on their flags, as do the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario.

Malaysia, another former British colony, decided not to follow this example and rejected the idea of continuing to honor the British monarch in this way. However, they still wanted to be a monarchy, just with their own monarch. Uniquely, rather than give this monarch a title like “King” or “Emperor”, they chose to call him the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or “Paramount Ruler”.

Yang Di-Pertuan Agong XVI image from the US Embassy Kuala Lumpur

Al-Sultan Abdullah, the current Yang di-Pertuan Agong

Fair enough, but what really makes Malaysia’s monarch interesting is that he is chosen for a five-year term. Yes, really, Malaysia is the only monarchy in the world that gives its monarch a term limit. So, why is he even considered a monarch at all, and not a president of a republic? Well, Malaysia is a federation made up of 13 states, nine of whom are monarchies, and these nine monarchs choose the Paramount Ruler from among themselves, though in practice, they all take turns at holding the position. Thus, the Paramount Ruler is a monarch already by virtue of his existing titles.

Though, to be fair, one can be a monarch and a republican president at the same time. Just ask the President of France.

Emmanuel Macron image by Andrea Hanks

See, in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain lies the tiny Principality of Andorra. This small country has existed since the Middle Ages, and since 1607, it has been ruled by two “Co-Princes”, the Bishop of Urgell (a small town in Spain) and the ruler of France. Originally, this meant the King of France, but since the Principality’s northern neighbor became a republic, the President of France has filled this role. Of course, as the French President is typically quite busy with his main job governing France, he appoints a representative to act on his behalf in Andorra. Generally, French presidents have tended not to interfere in Andorran politics, though in 2009 then-president Nicholas Sarkozy used his position to pressure Andorra to reform its banking laws so that it would no longer be a tax haven.

Monarchy may be the oldest form of government, but as we can see from these examples, it is anything but simple. Just like any political institution, it is subject to the same human foibles and pressures. When it comes to monarchies around the world, politics is strange, indeed.