October 17, 2016 3:45 pm JST
Peter Tasker

Modern monarchy, a stable system for turbulent times

Thailand is in deep mourning after the passing of the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years. During that period the country experienced umpteen coups d'etat and attempted coups. Democracy has proved no panacea for deep-seated social and regional divisions, in fact it may have exacerbated them. Even so, Thailand has continued to develop economically and has become a huge magnet for tourism and foreign direct investment from Japan and other countries.

Thai politics has never been pretty, but neither has it generated enough instability to present a deadly threat to the country's growth. The monarchy must take a great deal of the credit for contributing to the building of a national identity, which is essential for limiting social and ethnic conflicts. Many other countries, including some in Southeast Asia, have not been so lucky.

Most Thais seemed to have unbounded affection for their king, to judge by the outpouring of grief and the portraits on display almost everywhere. The question now is how much of that affection reflects that for the late King Bhumibol himself and how much for the institution. To the vast majority of the public, there has been no difference between the two for their entire lives.

 

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Bhumibol's heir apparent since 1972, has a tough act to follow, but working in his favor is the fact that the monarchy system has proved to be a surprisingly durable institution. In nearly all the countries that have monarchies there is little desire to change the status quo -- and that includes wealthy social democratic countries in Europe, such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland. Spain, even more politically devided than Thailand after the bloody civil war and long rule of Gen. Francisco Franco, restored the monarchy in 1978. Despite recent scandals, it is widely accepted.

Many countries of the British Commonwealth have opted to retain the British monarch as head of state. In Canada, 70% of the public supports keeping the monarchy; it is one of the features that distinguishes their country from its superpower neighbor. Australia has a strong republican tradition -- current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a committed anti-monarchist -- yet when the issue was tested by a referendum in 1999 under the pro-royal Prime Minister John Howard, the result was a decisive vote against change. Hardline republicans blamed the result on Howard's framing of the referendum question -- but the reality was clear: not enough of them wanted a republic at any price.

In Japan, opinion polls have reflected overwhelming support for the emperor since they were first taken in the 1950s. Abolishing the institution is favored by a tiny and diminishing percentage of the population. When Emperor Akihito intimated in August that he wished to abdicate for reasons of ill-health, there was an outpouring of sympathy for him in the country at large.

Donald or Kate?

So why has monarchy been so successful in such a variety of different settings? At first sight, a system that works by hereditary succession seems woefully out-of-synch with the values of meritocracy and fairness that the modern world is supposed to prize. But it is actually those outmoded characteristics that are the key to its longevity. Because the values of the marketplace, efficiency and the struggle for survival have become so ubiquitous, the spaces that remain untouched become more valuable. One such space is the family; we do not lay off our children or siblings in favor of lower-cost alternatives. Heredity wins over merit. Another is the monarchy; kings and queens do not need better exam grades or resumes to get their positions. They symbolize an older and deeper form of social relations.

They also symbolize continuity. It is remarkable that Japan has had only four emperors since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a period in which the United States and France have had 27 and 25 heads of state respectively. The world has changed out of all recognition since the mid 19th century. There has been dizzying technological, social and political change; industrialization, world wars, the spread of mass communications. Monarchy is an institution in the shape of a person that binds societies to their histories. Without such institutions we might drown in the flood of change.

The strongest argument for constitutional monarchy is that it is better than the alternatives. As the reputation of politicians falls, the relative attraction of a nonpolitical head of state grows. It is doubtful that many Canadians envy Americans their choice of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as head of state and symbol of the nation in the upcoming presidential election. Most European monarchs enjoy public support ratings of 70-80%, a level that elected political leaders can only dream about.

Monarchies, with their time-honored ceremonies and special garb, provide what 19th century British journalist Walter Bagehot called "magic and mystique." The idea that economic progress removes the need for enchantment is wrong. It simply finds other vehicles -- vacuous celebrities or, worse, malign political figures. A recent Financial Times article described how the cult of Mao Zedong has re-emerged in today's China as an overtly religious phenomenon. Much better, surely, is the version provided by the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, watched on TV by over half the British population and a global audience of 350 million.

The trick that modern monarchs must perform is to embody tradition and continuity while adapting to new conditions. As marriage breakdowns and extramarital liaisons have become more common in British society, so they have within the British royal family, with three of Queen Elizabeth's four children having divorced. Nobody expects them to be spotless. On the other hand, clutching on to outdated privileges or transgressing contemporary behavioral norms could be fatal. The last French royal house, the Bourbons, famously "learned nothing and forgot nothing" and they are long gone.

Modern monarchy's golden rules are to keep a safe distance from politics, do not go too far off-piste in terms of personal behavior and remember that public support is always essential to the institution's survival. The King is dead. Long live the King.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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