Monarchies, Republics and Democracy


By Miguel Ángel Presno Linera
Law Professor at the Universidad de Oviedo, Spain.


In this text, professor Presno Linera makes an overview about the different kinds of governments, both in a republican system and in a monarchy. Professor Presno stresses the idea that republic and democracy not always go together. Thus, there are lot of European states, like Great Britain, Netherlands, or Spain, as example, that have a monarchy but they are democracies. First, Professor Presno explains the different types of monarchies have been in Spain since the liberal revolutions in the 19th century to the actual Spanish constitution. Secondly he makes an explanation on the different types of republics, in this case looking to the American republics and some of the Europeans.


Throughout history, monarchical and republican systems have followed one another in different states and have experienced different changes throughout centuries. As is well known, a simple way to differentiate between Monarchy and Republic is that in a monarchy the position of the Head of State is hereditary and held for life; whereas in a republic, the Head of State is elected, either by the citizens or by other constitutional bodies, and its position is time-limited.

According to these premises, a priori, a republic seems to be more democratic than a monarchy, since in that system, most people could hold the position of Head of State (although normally with some restrictions as being of legal age or born in the country), this position would be temporary and its appointment would depend on an election of some kind. This is true; however, democracy can have some gradations and still be a democracy. To sum up, there are lots of states, such as Great Britain, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Spain, in which the monarchy does not stop them from being democratic, since in essence, a democracy involves its citizens effectively taking part in the election of the government of public affairs, but it does not really imply them to choose every state organ. Members of the judiciary (judges and other court constituents) are not usually elected directly in Europe; however, their source of legitimacy is democratic, since they apply rules, such as the Constitution and the applicable law, that have to be approve, directly or indirectly, by the citizens.

The original democracy of monarchies does not come historically or traditionally but simply because they are monarchies according to the Constitution, which could also state something different or modify that initial monarchy. Monarchies are democratic also because in the most developed monarchies, monarchs’ authority is limited and they actually do duties that they are obliged to do –for example, signing and sanctioning laws is an obligation for monarchs, not a power.

As it is well known, there are still monarchies without democracy, as well as they are theoretical republics in which the citizens do not take part in the government of public affairs.


Different Types of Monarchies

The first kind of monarchy after the original absolute monarchy is the Constitutional Monarchy, which despite its name, does not mean the monarch’s authority comes from the Constitution, but it involves the King sharing the leadership of the national politics with the Parliament. This kind of monarchy appeared in England in 1688.

The next step taken in monarchy also took place in England, after the Reform Act 1832, and brought the parliamentation of the monarchy. This means, the executive power is divided between the King and a government that does not respond politically to the King but to the Parliament. The King just formalizes the decisions that the government has made. This is the theory, but in practise it has been common in the parliamentary monarchies of different European states that the King has taken part in the government’s functions and not only in rare cases but relatively frequently.

This is the reason why constitutions approved in the second half of the 20th century started depriving the King from having a big intervention in political decisions. This way, the role of the King has been equated to the role of the prime minister of ParliamentaryRepublics, although not completely.

Although the Spanish Constitution approved on 1978 states that the form of government is the Parliamentary Monarchy (Article 1.3), it shows that most of the King’s duties are obligated and price-fixed quite similarly to the Italian, German and Portuguese prime ministers.

Thus, according to Sections 62 and 63 of the Spanish Constitution, the King’s duties are: sanction and promulgate the laws; summon and dissolve the Cortes Generales (Spanish bicameral parliament) and call for elections under the terms provided for in the Constitution; call for a referendum in the cases provided for in the Constitution; express the State’s assent to international commitments through treaties, in conformity with the Constitution and the laws; following authorization by the Cortes Generales, declare war and make peace.

Therefore, we could say that Spain has some kind of Republican Monarchy: the Head of State is not elected but it gets its position through hereditary succession, but its duties are price-fixed and subject to other constitutional bodies’ decisions.

There is an important exception in this norm, though: according to Section 99 of the Spanish Constitution, when suggesting the candidate to become the Prime Minister, some right of intervention is given to the King, although, up to now, the election system has given clear parliamentary majorities that have considerably helped the King to make his decision.

A second exception, not set by the Constitution but by the Parliament’s ineffectiveness, is that there is no transparency in the Spanish Monarchy.  The current preliminary draft law that the Spanish Government has presented intends to exclude the Royal House by not mentioning it. However, Section 3.1 of the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents presented in 2009 states that “concerned States may, at the time of signature or when depositing their instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession, by a declaration addressed to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, declare that communication with the reigning Family and its Household or the Head of State shall also be included among the possible limitations”.

Thus, this Convention considers that the Royal House might be bound to limitations to the public affairs but, firstly, it is a possibility, not a mandate; and secondly, communication with the reigning Family, its Household or the Head of State can be excluded but not by the whole institution and not in all cases. On the other hand, the justification given by the Spanish Second Deputy Prime Minister about it seems groundless. She has said that that exclusion comes because the Royal Family is not “Public Administration”. It does not matter that it is not Public Administration but a constitutional body, since the Congress of Deputies, the Senate, the Constitutional Court and the General Council of the Judiciary, among other bodies, are constitutional bodies and their application is included in the above mentioned preliminary draft law.

Finally, the historical, political and legal evolution of the monarchy does not stop its existence to be questioned. The existence of a monarchy in the Spanish political system is obviously perfectly legal and legitimate. That questioning can lead to promote a constitutional reform that makes this institution disappear.

However, it is at this point that is appreciable how Spanish constitutional members wanted to protect the Monarchy from being abolished, since modifying any of the constitutional precepts that regulate it is a extraordinarily complicated process. Section 168 states the following:

“(1) If a total revision of the Constitution is proposed, or a partial revision thereof, affecting the Preliminary Title, Chapter II, Division 1 of Part I, or Part II (relating to the Crown), the principle of the proposed reform shall be approved by a two-thirds majority of the members of each House, and the Cortes Generales shall immediately be dissolved.

(2) The Houses elected thereupon must ratify the decision and proceed to examine the new constitutional text, which must be passed by a two-thirds majority of the members of each House.

(3) Once the amendment has been passed by the Cortes Generales, it shall be submitted to ratification by referendum”.

This is therefore the constitutional way to reform the monarchy –for example, to eliminate the male preference over the female when accessing the position of Head of State- or to abolish it. It is questionable, in democratic terms, that this difficult tool still exists nowadays with relation to the Crown but not with relation to the Cortes Generales or the Government.

Therefore, people who would like to promote the abolishment of the Monarchy would have to manage to get, firstly, the support of some of the bodies capable of initiating a constitutional reform: the Government, the Congress, the Senate and the Legislative Assembly of each Spanish Autonomous Community (according to Section 166 and 87 of the Spanish Constitution). Secondly, they would have to get that initiative to overcome the obstacles stated in Section 168.

A different way to reach the abolishment of the Monarchy would be promoting a reform of Section 168 so that a constitutional change was not so complex. In this case, the above mentioned bodies would still be in charge of this decision.

Holding a referendum on the subject would not be simple either, since Section 92 gives that authority to the Prime Minister, who has to be previously authorised by the Congress of Deputies. That precept says the referendum should be called by the King, but he would be forced to call for it if the Prime Minister suggests it and the Congress authorises it.

An added difficulty to this is, even if the majority of the population voted for the abolition of the Monarchy, it would not force, in legal terms, to actually abolish it. In case that the result was clear, it would be difficult, though, in political terms, to oppose to that reform.

It is obvious that there is a lack of direct intervention of the citizens, in terms of democracy, since they can neither ask to hold a referendum nor initiate a constitutional reform. However, apart from all these difficulties, any constitutional change is possible in legal and political terms.


Different Types of Republics

Republics can be divided primarily into Presidential Republics and Parliamentary Republics. Presidential Republics, following the original model that appeared in the United States, have a president who is elected by the citizens and leads the internal and external politics, and who cannot dissolve the Parliament but does not depend of its approval to hold their position. The president also has an important role in the applicable law, since they can present projects and, in some cases, veto the ones approved by the Cortes Generales.

The popular election of the Head of State is direct in lots of countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, etc.) and indirect, through a polling station, in the United States.

It is also common that the length of the position is limited. This means the president cannot be reelected after one mandate, in cases like Mexico, or two, in USA or Brazil.

Most of the European republics are Parliamentary Republics (Germany, Italy, Portugal, Austria, Poland…), where the Head of State is either elected by the citizens (Austria, Portugal, Poland) or by another constitutional body (General Assembly in Germany, Parliament in joint session in Italy). However, there is an example of Presidential Republic in Russia.

The role of the Head of State in parliamentary republics is similar, as has been mentioned above, as the role of the Head of State in monarchies: represent the State internationally, suggest the Prime Minister or the President, sing laws, call for elections.

At this point, we should highlight there can be a clear difference between Head of State and Head of Government. When this difference takes place, we talk about a semipresidential system. The most known example of it is France, where the Head of State is elected democratically and has important duties related to the interior and exterior affairs, which they share with the Prime Minister. This means there are periods in which the president of the republic and a prime minister of different political ideology lead together.

In any case, in order to understand the constitutional structure of any contemporary democratic system, it is necessary to take the parties’ system into account, since in any democracy, both presidential and parliamentary, the relations between the different powers depend in a big amount on the system of political parties. It is also possible to see a process of undeniable presidentialization of the duties and activities carried out by the Prime Minister in parliamentary systems, which is evolving as the strengthening of the President in presidential systems is.

Miguel Ángel Presno Linera.
Law Professor at the Universidad de Oviedo, Spain.
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