Can the monarchy be a savior for embattled democracies?
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh posed the question this week whether Queen Elizabeth II and now King Charles III represent the opposite to the three 'Ps' of populism, polarization and post-truth—‘Could the monarchy’, he asked, ‘be the rescue of democracy?’ As London saw this week one of the biggest ever gathering of heads of state, and where the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II attracted hundreds of millions of viewers, it is a question worth considering. When many elected heads of states are behaving so badly, can constitutional monarchies act as safety valves, channeling energies of national identity and unity while also speaking of democratic values increasingly lost in mainstream political debate? Democracies spent much of the 19th and 20th century trying to separate themselves from the influence of the monarchy, as well as the established churches. It was largely a battle won, allowing liberal democracy to flourish, to put checks on the hereditary elites and oversee some of the most far moving social reforms in history. The British monarchy is forever associated with the empire, and its history of oppression. Her death brought calls for an historical reckoning about the atrocities committed across its colonies. But, as 17-hours queues snaking across London to pay respect to the Queen’s show, there are almost spiritual impulses for a good part of the population that transcend purely rational politics. The monarch harnesses much primeval energy. Walking around Westminster Abbey on Sunday, I was struck by the ethnic and national diversities represented by the mourners. British writer and former prime ministerial candidate Rory Stewart tried to answer Ivereigh’s question by quoting two people: First, the British post war socialist Prime Minister Clement Atlee, who stated: ‘The monarchy attracts to itself the kind of sentimental loyalty which otherwise might go to the leader of a faction. There is, therefore, far less danger under a constitutional monarchy of the people being carried away by a Hitler, a Mussolini or even a de Gaulle.’ And secondly British writer Martin Amis, who wrote that ‘monarchy allows us to take a holiday from reason; and on that holiday we do no harm’. As International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy shows, many established democracies are backsliding, ill-served by the very elected leaders themselves who are using techniques garnered from autocracies to stay in power. At the same time, younger generations may be more willing to embrace authoritarian and charismatic leaders. Enter the monarchy into this heady and dangerous mix. In the UK, Charles’s calls for social inclusion and for environmental care contrast with harsh politicians’ rhetoric against immigrants, and the short-termism that undermines the battle against climate change. The jury is out about what King Charles will be like when wielding office. But the outpouring of grief after Elizabeth’s death managed to bring together Irish republicans, Scottish nationalists and English monarchists at a time when the government has been taken over by a rightist faction of the Conservative Party that has played on division, whether at home or in Europe. The record of monarchies is mixed. There are several constitutional monarchies that are high performing democracies—Scandinavian and Benelux states being good examples. But in Spain, the king has weighed in politically against Catalan demands for independence. The likes of Thailand are hardly inspiring. And when the push comes to the shove, many monarchies have sided with the dictators of the 20th century. Still, liberal democracy has few friends these days. Monarchy may be ridden with privilege and easy to criticize but harnessing its energy in defense of democratic values may be a valuable resource in a fast-emptying toolbox.
As anti-immigrant rhetoric grows, is Sweden’s democracy feeling the strain?
Sweden’s election may still be over a week away, but there is already one clear victor—the far-right Sweden Democrats. A decade ago, the party’s anti-immigration rhetoric was shunned, their party cadres mainly in the news for neo-Nazi pasts. Now its agenda is mainstreamed as traditional parties compete to convince voters that they can address the country’s alleged ills, including what was long a political taboo—an explicit link between crime and immigration. Taken aback by support for the Sweden Democrats that is as high as around a fifth of the electorate (some polls show they outgun the main center-right opposition), politicians of left and right are outdoing each other to persuade voters they, too, can be tough on immigration and crime. It was a sign of the times last week when center-left Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Sweden did not want ‘Chinatowns’ or ‘Somalitowns’. It came as her Immigration Minister argued that there should be no more than 50 per cent of ‘non-Nordic’ people in any housing area. Not to be outdone, center-right politicians have called for children in so called ‘vulnerable areas’ to be given rapid tests for ADHD. All this has raised the question—Is this Sweden’s ugliest ever election? Andersson’s statement may fly in the face of studies showing ‘Chinatowns’ and equivalents are crucial for integration, acting as bridges for contacts between immigrants and native populations. But more fundamentally, it is also a sign of how playing political catchup can make for bad policy. In some ways, Sweden Democrats have underscored how democracy functions. They enjoy support because they highlight issues long ignored by mainstream parties, especially on crime. But catching up does not mean having to copy rhetoric. Sweden already has one of the EU bloc’s most restrictive immigration policies. Why does this all matter for Swedish democracy? Sweden has long scored sky high as a democracy. It has a record of welcoming refugees and identifies as a humanitarian superpower. Firstly, Sweden’s expensive welfare model is based on pragmatism, policy efficiency and its ability to make effective reforms. President Barack Obama was envious of how Sweden was run by straight thinking technocrats. But this new rhetoric risks sidelining serious policy debate. Are Sweden’s top-down integration policies failing to embrace existing immigrant communities? Are restrictive labor regulations harming immigrants’ employment? How can Sweden free up bureaucracy to foster immigrants’ creative energy? Secondly, Swedish social contract is based on trust. Swedes are happy to pay high taxes because they think their government does a good job, and that everyone is in the same boat. But rhetoric over immigration and crime undermines that coziness. If new arrivals are seen as a risk to safe streets and welfare, anti-immigrant sentiment will rise. The social contract, fundamental to Sweden’s democratic consensus, may fray. When I recently mentioned this to a former lawmaker, he told me not to worry. Common sense will prevail, he said. It reminded me of British people commonly uttering Don’t worry, we’ll muddle through when facing adversity. It may also have been a stance that hid Britain’s steady decline. Tolerance and pragmatism are in no country’s DNA. Swedish democracy; you may be top of the class, but you still need to study.
Chile’s constitutional referendum: Will the participatory process end in rejection?
Constitutional reform in Chile has been in the works for at least nine years and is now approaching a critical moment. The current process grew out of a protest movement (Estallido Social) in 2019. The demand for constitutional change was then given concrete support in a referendum in 2020, where the vast majority of those who voted supported drafting a new constitution. The resulting process, led by a popularly elected and commendably diverse group of drafters, has now come to a close. Surprisingly, though, despite widespread popular participation in the process, polls indicate that the draft is likely to be rejected in the referendum scheduled for 4 September. (However, it should be noted that since voting in the referendum is compulsory, prediction on the basis of the polls is difficult.) In a comparative context, a rejection of the draft would be a remarkably rare event. My study with Zach Elkins, which analyzed 644 referendums between 1789 and 2016, found that referendums to ratify new constitutions passed 94% of the time – often with very high levels of support. Over the last half century in particular, ratification via referendum has become increasingly popular. At the same time, so few constitutions have been rejected by voters that it perhaps appears to be an almost costless choice for politicians to submit their work to a referendum. The likely outcome on 4 September would place Chile in very rare company indeed. Despite overwhelming support for initiating a constitution-making process and broad participation in the drafting process itself, there are doubts about the outcome. Sensationalized media coverage of the more radical proposals suggested at early stages may have undercut public trust in the drafters and the text. Now, at an elite political and legal level, a number of criticisms have been made regarding the content of the proposed constitution, including the potential weakening or fragmentation of the party system and the way that the new balance of powers could lead to gridlock. Notwithstanding its phenomenal length, the text also leaves many matters to be decided by ordinary legislation at some point in the future. Among the general public, those who say they will vote against ratification highlight healthcare, education, pensions, and the plurinationality of the state among their top concerns. In an international-comparative context, a rejection of the draft constitution in Chile would be a very rare event. In the Chilean context, one might wonder if the failure of two successive attempts at constitutional change would dampen enthusiasm for yet another constituent process. Even so, the President has argued that if this process fails, a new one should start right away. Surprisingly – given that the constitution-making process has been ongoing for the better part of nine years already, this position is supported by 35% of Chileans. The level of support for change manifested in 2019 and 2020 apparently remains high. If Chile can push forward into a successful third attempt at reform, it would be almost as remarkable as a rejection in the referendum, and could provide some insight for would-be constitutional reformers in other countries. Chile’s constitutional moment may last much longer than anyone expected.