A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a hereditary monarch—a king or queen—serves as the head of state, but political power is also constitutionally granted to a body such as a legislature or representative council.
There are 38 constitutional monarchies in existence today split into two types: parliamentary and semi-constitutional.
Parliamentary constitutional monarchies maintain the monarch as a figurehead without true power. Most are formerly absolute monarchies wherein internal political pressure on the monarch led the monarch to cede political power to a democratic institution. Fourteen of these maintain the British monarch as their figurehead.
In semi-constitutional monarchies, however, the monarch retains power that is analogous to the power of a president in a republican system.
Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchies
1. Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua and Barbuda is a single Caribbean nation. It has been a constitutional monarchy since 1981, when the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. The figurehead monarch remains to be Queen Elizabeth II, and she appoints the governor-general, who is the head of state. The prime minister and parliament are both democratically elected.
Australia became a constitutional monarchy on 1 January 1901 when the British colonies on the continent united to create a nation-state with 7 states and territories. The figurehead monarch continues to be Queen Elizabeth II, and she appoints the governor-general as her representative. There was a failed republican movement and referendum to succeed in 1999 which was led by Malcolm Turnbull, who went on to become prime minister.
3. The Bahamas
The Bahamas gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1973 and became a constitutional monarchy. The figurehead monarch is Queen Elizabeth II. The parliament is unicameral, meaning it does not have a senate or house of Lords like the USA and UK respectively.
Belgium is a federal monarchy with a bicameral parliament. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1831, when it gained its independence from the Netherlands. The figurehead monarch is the King of Belgium who appoints the elected prime minister as the leader of the government. The parliament has two houses: the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate.
Belize became a self-governing colony of the United Kingdom in 1862 and eventually achieved independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1981. The monarch is Queen Elizabeth II and her representative is the governor-general. However, power lies with the prime minister who is the head of the parliament.
Cambodia has been a constitutional monarchy on and off between various colonizations, wars, coups, and changes of government. Most recently, the King of Cambodia was reinstated as a figurehead in 1993. The king is selected among male descendants of King Ang Duong (who reigned from 1841-1860). They must be at least 30 years old but, unlike most monarchies, do not necessarily have to be the eldest son of the previous monarch.
Canada is another country with Queen Elizabeth II as a figurehead monarch. Canada became a country in 1867 when it was united under the British North America Act. The act united the provinces of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a single federation. Polls show Canadians are split on whether to become a republic, with many believing the British monarch figurehead provides political stability.
Denmark has had kings and queens from as far back as the 8th Century BCE. It was once an elected monarchy, but since Frederick III it has been hereditary. The constitution of 1849 instated a democratic constitutional monarchy with the monarch only holding a ceremonial role.
Grenada is a nation in the Carribean that was ruled by Britain through the colonial era. It became an independent Commonwealth country in 1974 and a constitutional monarchy one year later. The figurehead monarch is Queen Elizabeth II who appoints the governor-general as her representative. The prime minister is the leader of the government and is democratically elected.
Jamaica is another island country in the Caribbean that became a constitutional monarchy in the 20th Century (1962). The figurehead monarch is Queen Elizabeth II. Jamaica’s relationship with the monarch has been tense at times as, under British rule, Jamaica was a stopover point for the transatlantic slave trade.
Japan is a constitutional monarchy with a divine emperor. The emperor is the son of the sun goddess and is considered sacred. He has a ceremonial role and is not involved in politics. The prime minister is the head of government and is elected by the people. Japan’s monarchy is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to 660 BCE.
Lesotho has had kings belonging to the House of Moshoeshoe since 1822. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1966 after breaking from the British Crown. The politics of Lesotho has led to kings being exiled on several occasions, only to be reinstated years later. The kings have more-or-less been merely figureheads.
Luxembourg is a constitutional monarchy with a grand duke as the figurehead monarch. The royalty in Luxembourg have very close ties to the royalty in Belgium which as throughout history been both a protectorate and adversary to Luxembourg. The prime minister exercises power in the government of Luxembourg and is democratically elected.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a Yang di-Pertuan Agong as the figurehead monarch. A Yang di-Pertuan Agong is elected by the hereditary rulers of each Malaysian state for a five-year term (making it an elective monarchy). The prime minister is the head of government and is elected by the people.
15. The Netherlands
The monarchy in the Netherlands is a beloved symbol of Dutch national identity. The monarch’s colors, orange, are also the colors of the nation in sporting events. However, the monarch lost most of its true powers in 1848 through constitutional reform, which was instituted against William I’s wishes. In response to the movement for reform, William I abdicated, and William II accepted the reforms.
16. New Zealand
New Zealand became a constitutional monarchy in 1947 when it gained independence from Britain. It belongings to the Commonwealth nations with the Queen of England as the figurehead. The prime minister is the leader of the government and is democratically elected. Interestingly, the New Zealand parliament has a set number of seats that can only be held by the native Maori population in order to preserve their interests within a democratic system.
Norway is a constitutional monarchy whose figurehead leader is the descendant of Harald Fairhair who ruled from 872 CE to 930 CE. The monarchy today is a ceremonial one, with the prime minister as the head of government. Interestingly, the constitution still assigns significant powers to the king. However, by virtue of tradition and custom, all mentions of the king are today generally understood to be a reference to the king’s counsel, or in other words, the elected government.
18. Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea belongs to the Commonwealth of nations, with the British monarch representing the head of state. Interestingly, they were a protectorate of Australia up until 1975, and Australia had the British monarch as their head of state. By extension, she was also the figurehead of Papua New Guinea. When Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia, they asked the Queen of England to remain their monarch.
19. Saint Kitts and Nevis
Like other Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis was colonized by the British during the colonial era. Saint Kitts and Nevis became independent in 1983 and retained the British monarch as their head of state. The prime minister is the leader of the government.
20. Saint Lucia
Saint Lucia became a British colony in 1814 and gained independence in 1979. The British monarch was retained as the head of state and the prime minister was appointed as the head of government. Saint Lucia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
A Note on Samoa: Samoa would fit here in an alphabetical list. While Samoa behaves like a constitutional monarchy with a ceremonial head of state who is named in the constitution, this is not technically a requirement within the constituion. So, it technically is a parliamentary republic. Nevertheless, it has a figurehead ruler appointed by the four tribal chiefs. The appointed figurehead is called ‘O le Ao o le Malo’.
21. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Another set of Caribbean islands colonized by the British, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines gained independence from Britain in 1979. As with its neighboring islands, it decided to retain the British monarch as their head of state. The prime minister is the leader of the government.
22. Solomon Islands
Solomon Islands became a British protectorate in 1893 and gained independence in 1978. The British monarch was retained as the head of state and the prime minister was appointed as the head of government. As a nation that retains the British monarch as its figurehead, the Solomon Islands is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Spain has had a long history of controversial monarchs, including the Catholic monarchs such as King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I who instituted the Spanish Inquisition. Even into the 20th Century and during the General Franco dictatorship, the kings of Spain were involved in backroom politics. Spain became a democracy in 1978 and, since, the kings of Spain have mostly faded into ceremonial positions.
Sweeden has had a hereditary monarch since the 16th Century. Since 1917, the king has had little political power. However, it wasn’t until 1975 that the constitution was amended so the king did not need to give royal assent to laws that pass through parliament.
Thailand has had various coups and constitutions in recent decades, but the king has maintained a figurehead position through most of these machinations. While the king does not officially hold political power, lèse-majesté laws criminalize criticism of the king. These laws continue to be exercised, providing him with significant protections that regular citizens do not enjoy.
Tuvalu is a remote pacific island nation near Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga. Its population is just over 11,000 people. It became a British protectorate in 1892 and gained its independence in 1978. The British monarch was retained as the head of state and the prime minister was appointed as the head of government.
27. United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is the most famous example of a country with a constitutional monarchy. The King or Queen serves as the monarch, but holds little actual power. The British Parliament, led by the Prime Minister, is responsible for making laws and governing the country. As a hangover effect of British imperialism, the monarch is also the figurehead of 14 other nations.
Since 1783, Bahrain has been ruled by the descendants of Khalifa bin Mohammed.
Powers still held by the king of Bahrain include the ability to unilaterally dissolve parliament, veto legislation, and call for new elections. The king is involved in daily political decision-making and has significant religious authority as the head of the Bahraini branch of Sunni Islam.
The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has had a hereditary monarchy since 1907. Over time, the Druk Gyalpo (translation: head of state) has ceded a lot of power to the parliament, but not all. The Druk Gyalpo clan can appoint government officials, issue pardons, and grant citizenship. Through his ability to appoint officials, he can still exercise limited power over the nation.
Jordan is a constitutional monarchy that has been in place since the Arab Spring of 2011. The figurehead monarch is King Abdullah II and the prime minister is the head of government. King Abdullah II accepted the demands of Arab Spring protesters to cede more of his power to the democratic bodies.
Jordan is one of the most liberal Arab countries, as reflected in the power of the parliament. However, the 2010s did have some troubles, with the king sacking 3 prime ministers. He appears to still wield more power than most figurehead kings, but has on paper ceded much of his power to the elected bodies.
The ruler of Kuwait, called the Emir, is always a member of the Al Sabah dynasty. Rule generally alternates between two branches of the dynasty, although there have been occasional diversions from this pattern due to backroom political deals. While there is a constitution and elected legislature, the Emir appoints all judiciary positions and chooses the prime minister. Through these appointments, he wields ongoing power, leading it to be called effectively a dictatorship by most democracy indexes.
Liechtenstein is a small country in central Europe with a population of just over 37,000 people. The monarchy has been in place since 1719 and the current prince is Hans-Adam II. For a central European nation, it is quite backward politically. In fact, women were only granted the vote in 1984, and the referendum was only passed with 51% of the vote.
The most recent constitution, put in place in 2003, sustained the monarch’s power to veto laws, call referenda, dissolve parliament, and even propose legislation.
The Principality of Monaco is a city-state on the Mediterranean coast, ruled since 1297 by the House of Grimaldi. The monarch gets a list of five candidates for prime minister proposed by the French government and he can choose a leader from among the list. Because the prime minister is appointed by the monarch and not through a public vote, the monarch retains serious power. However, the legislature needs to pass all bills.
Morocco has slowly been moving toward democratic status over recent decades, although the king maintains control over appointing a prime minister, directing the military, and directing foreign affairs.
A 2011 referendum, instigated to show reform following the Arab Spring, curtailed the king’s power. It means the king must appoint a prime minister from the party that wins the most votes and it reaffirmed several civil liberties. However, it’s still considered a hybrid regime due to flaws such as lack of press freedom.
Qatar has a constitutional parliament with 30 of the 45 seats elected through popular vote. The remaining 15 seats are chosen by the emir. The emir also unilaterally selects a prime minister and cabinet, giving him almost complete power. Thus, of all the constitutional monarchies on this list, Qatar, alongside the UAE, remains one that leans closer to absolute monarchy than democracy.
Tonga is the only Pacific nation that maintains an indigenous monarch called Tuʻi Tonga. The monarch ceded some power in 2010, although the hereditary nobles continue to exercise significant power in government. Eight of the 25 seats in parliament are elected by a group of 33 nobles.
37. United Arab Emirates
Despite its status as a constitutional monarchy, the UAE is undemocratic and the seven Sheiks wield hegemonic power. Seats in the Federal Superme Council, are divided up among the emirs of the seven Sheikhdoms that make up the UAE. The Federal Supereme Council elects the president every five years, although there have only been two presidents in the history of the UAE, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his son.
Constitutional monarchies have a monarch as the head of state but also a constitution in which power is granted to a representative body. Most constitutional monarchies today have a democratically elected parliament that holds the majority of power. The monarch is merely a figurehead.
However, there are some constitutional monarchies that continue to grant power to the monarch. Some, such as Qatar and the UAE, are effectively still absolute monarchies where the monarch has near-complete control over the constitutional bodies.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]