We live in a constitutional monarchy where the actual powers of the monarch are very limited: to listen, to advise, and to warn, as Bagehot says. This is not the case in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein (population: 36,000 with a land area of 62 square miles) where the constitution gives the hereditary prince the right of veto. Tim Tindal-Robertson of the World Apostolate of Fatima in the UK has emailed me to say that this right of veto has resulted in a difficulty: Hereditary Prince Alois von und zu Liechtenstein, who assumed his constitutional powers in 2004, has stated that he is prepared to abdicate his position if the principality carries out a referendum this Thursday, May 10, to approve a new abortion law.
Political activists want to revoke the Prince’s right of veto and have formed a citizens’ committee for this purpose. The Prince, a devout Catholic, told the parliament on March 1 that if the population wants to change the constitution, effectively removing the princely family’s power, a power it has exercised for over 200 years and which has given the principality its identity, he would not be able to undertake his political responsibilities and would “completely withdraw from political life”.
This seeming impasse began in 2011 when Prince Alois threatened to veto a referendum legalising abortion if it were passed. That attempt at a referendum failed because of his threat and the current campaign has developed as a result. Under the Liechtenstein constitution, it has to gather 1,500 signatures by May 10 in order to call the referendum. Currently the Prince still retains his power of veto; it is thought this might not last for much longer.
Many commentators will think, “Quite right too.” How can a modern democracy develop when one person, by the caprice of birth, still retains seemingly feudal powers? But the Prince is not exercising this power arbitrarily. Within recent memory, unborn children were protected by law as a matter of course in every European country, a law that stated they had “the right to life”. Prince Alois, as a practising Catholic – and unlike some American high-profile, supposedly Catholic politicians who I have blogged about recently – does not believe he can separate his faith from his public duties over a matter of such fundamental importance. I think he is right. He is exercising his right of veto, not because of a personal whim but to uphold natural justice against the threat of an unjust law. As the custodian of justice towards unborn future citizens of Liechtenstein, he is acting more responsibly than the activists.
In 1990 a somewhat similar crisis occurred in Belgium. The government wanted to bring in a new law permitting abortion. Such a law, constitutionally, had to be signed in by the King of Belgium, Baudouin I. Not having the power of veto, he stated that as a Catholic, he could not, in good conscience, sign the proposed law. The Cabinet declared the King “unable to govern”; he abdicated, and the law was passed. Yet 44 hours after his abdication, the Belgian parliament reinstated him. It was a compromise solution to a potential constitutional crisis. No compromise is being talked about in Liechtenstein.