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Why Kings Are Still Relevant

Binyamin Rose

New Populism Reveals an Old Yearning for Monarchies

Monday, May 29, 2017

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LONG LIVE At age 89, King Abdul Halim, the Sultan of Kedah in Malaysia, is the world’s longest-reigning king at 59 years and counting (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

O bservant Jews pray three times a day for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, even while basking in the unprecedented freedoms of religion and speech in the world’s republics and parliamentary democracies.

Yet more than 20% of the world's nations have monarchies. Monarchs still wield broad ruling powers in 11 lands. The global surge in populist and strongman leadership may herald the return of the monarch, contends Akhilesh “Akhi” Pillalamarri, a historian and editor at the Diplomat, an international current-affairs magazine serving the Asia-Pacific region.

“To many contemporary readers, monarchies seem to be purposeless, antiquated relics, anachronisms that ought to eventually give way to republics. On the contrary, nothing could be farther from the truth,” Akhi writes.

Looking around the world, there is evidence to support his contention. Vladimir Putin has led Russia either as president or prime minister since 1999. China’s President Xi Jinping should win a second five-year term this year, and both the Wall Street Journal and Voice of America say Xi is exploring a leadership structure similar to the Putin model to keep him in power after 2022.

Israelis, who have elected and reelected Binyamin Netanyahu four times, appreciate the value of stable and experienced leadership, while Akhi considers both the continued consolidation of power in Turkey by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and America’s election of Donald Trump as signs of a clear trend. “Several major countries are marching at an increasingly accelerated rate toward the political phenomenon known as ‘Putinism,’ or ‘Trumpism,’ ” Akhi writes, adding that monarchies retain several advantages over democracies, even in today’s era.

China’s Xi Jinping (R) sees Vladimir Putin as a role model for longevity

For starters, a monarch represents his entire country, and thus can rise above politics. Democratically elected leaders assume power even if they don’t win a majority vote. Netanyahu’s Likud Party only won 23% of the vote in 2015 election. In America, 40% of the electorate does not turn out to vote in presidential elections, making it difficult for a president to lay claim to a mandate.

Sometimes a popular monarch is the only person capable of preventing an unstable country (such as Thailand) from plunging into civil war, or a multi-ethnic country (like Belgium) from breaking apart.

More often than not, kings curb the worst instincts and extreme tendencies of political leaders and ruling factions. “The monarchies of the Arab states have established much more stable societies than non-monarchic Arab states, many of which have gone through such seismic shifts over the course of the Arab Spring,” Akhi notes.

While many people equate a monarch with an “off with your head” mentality, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives by accepting the Allied terms for surrender, and ending World War II against the wishes of his generals, who wanted to fight on.

Monarchies have drawbacks, too. For one, even a wise and good king can have an unsavory successor.

The Tanach, mainly in Sefer Melachim, relates the sad sagas of a series of unworthy kings who led the Ten Tribes astray and eventually into exile.

By contrast, Akhi contends that today’s heirs to the throne are educated from birth for their future role and live in the full media glare their entire lives. With a few notable exceptions, he says, this tends to constrain bad behavior. “More importantly, because they have literally been born to rule, they have constant, hands-on training on how to interact with people, politicians, and the media,” Akhi adds.

Democratic elections are also far from perfect. Unqualified politicians with outsized personalities and fundraising prowess hold an edge over low-key, experienced public servants. Politicians gain office by publicly adhering to predefined views that pander to special interests, and once in office, they feel free to walk back their most fervently articulated campaign promises.

Obviously not every monarch is benevolent. History is replete with kings and queens who were wicked tyrants. Akhi admits that, while noting that today’s monarchies are mainly restrained by some sort of constitutional or traditional framework. Even in days of yore, monarchs were beholden, to some extent, to religious institutions, aristocracies, and established social customs.

The Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, sums up the power of a king, noting that an absolute ruler finds acceptance because the people believe the idea that G-d gave him or her the right to rule: “This belief is known as divine right, which often has been associated with a monarchy.”

For the Jewish nation, that’s what keeps the Davidic dynasty alive in our hearts and minds and on our lips every single day. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 662 – Special Shavuos Edition 2017)

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