Liechtenstein referendum rejects curbs on royal powers

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Geneva

  • Published
Vaduz Castle, residence of the royal family of Liechtenstein, seen on 3 September 2010 (file photo)Image source, AFP
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Alpine monarchy: Organisers argued that the prince's power to veto referendum results are an anachronism

The people of Liechtenstein have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to curtail the political power of the royal family.

Despite an almost year-long pro-democracy campaign, 76% of those voting in Sunday's referendum said Crown Prince Alois should be allowed to retain his power of veto over decisions made in nationwide ballots.

Crown Prince Alois, who now carries out public duties in place of his father, Prince Hans Adam, has an unusual amount of power for a western European monarch in the 21st century. His powers were even extended, with the approval of the people, in 2003.

Nevertheless, some Liechtenstein citizens, like pro-democracy spokesman Sigvard Wohlwend, insist these powers are simply too great.

"They are certainly the most powerful monarchs in Europe," he said. "The prince of Liechtenstein still has the absolute right to veto any decision taken by the parliament or even the people.

"They have the right to dissolve the government, to dismiss parliament, and no judges can be appointed without the approval of the prince."

Abortion veto

Matters were brought to a head last September, ahead of a referendum on decriminalising abortion, in some cases, up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Image source, Reuters
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Crown Prince Alois had hinted he might retire from politics if the referendum yielded a "Yes" vote

In Liechtenstein, more than 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, and abortion is strictly illegal. Women wanting to end a pregnancy have to travel to neighbouring Germany or Austria, and if found out, risk imprisonment.

Just a few days before voters were due to cast their votes, Crown Prince Alois, also Roman Catholic, announced that he would veto any relaxation of the ban on abortion, whatever the voters decided in the referendum.

"As soon as he said that, people just felt their votes were worthless," said Sigvard Wohlwend. "The turnout collapsed; people didn't bother to go to the polls."

From that moment, a small group of Liechtensteiners began collecting signatures for another referendum, demanding the removal of the royal veto. Sunday was voting day.

The proposal was, its supporters said, fairly modest. The princely veto would be removed only for nationwide referendums; the prince would still be able to veto parliamentary decisions.

In the end, though, voters overwhelmingly backed the prince's powers, with barely 24% saying the veto should go.

Crown Prince Alois welcomed the result, saying it confirmed that "the 300-year-old partnership between the people and the royal house, which has been so successful up to now," would continue.

Although the vote was ostensibly just about the royal veto in nationwide ballots, the campaign became a debate over whether Liechtenstein should have a monarchy or not.

The principality is tiny, with a population of just 36,000. It does not even have its own currency, but uses the Swiss franc. Perhaps understandably, some citizens think the royal family is the only thing that gives their country an independent identity.

"The state of Liechtenstein has got an advantage with such a princely family," said member of parliament Renate Wohlwend (no relation to Sigvard Wohlwend), whose Progressive Citizens' Party recommended a "No" vote in Sunday's referendum.

"He represents the country; he is the guarantor of our sovereignty and stability."

"A small country has to have some flag to show, and Liechtenstein's flag is the princely house."

And, despite her position as an elected member of parliament, Renate Wohlwend is quite comfortable with the royal powers.

"I don't like to call them powers," she explained. "I think of them as rights and responsibilities, and this mix of monarchy and democracy creates the right kind of balance for a small country like Liechtenstein."

Business influence

Opinion polls regularly indicate that many, indeed the majority, share Renate Wohlwend's view. But some suspect the public backing for the royal family has more to do with business concerns than any genuine loyalty to the monarchy.

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The royal family's ownership of LGT - the state's biggest bank - could sway voters.

Liechtenstein's royal family owns and runs LGT, the principality's biggest bank and asset management fund. The bank employs 1,500 people - a not insignificant figure in a country of just 36,000 - and many people seem to believe the monarchy is the secret behind Liechtenstein's success as a financial sector.

The royal family itself has not been slow to remind the population of its financial power. When Prince Hans Adam asked for more constitutional powers in 2003, he warned that if he did not get them, he might abdicate and move to Austria, presumably taking his multi-billion-dollar enterprise with him. The voters duly backed him.

Nine years later, Crown Prince Alois also hinted that if his royal veto was removed, he too might withdraw from political life. Pro-democracy campaigners believe that would be a good thing, but agreed that other voters may have been worried about "offending" the prince.

"There is a very popular saying here in Liechtenstein that you can't win an election against the prince," he said. "And that is exactly the situation, we have democracy in Liechtenstein, as long as we agree with the prince."

So Sunday's big show of support for the royal family has not really come as a surprise. And, as Renate Wohlwend explained, even if voters had bucked tradition and opted to remove the royal veto, nothing much would have changed.

"Oh I think the Prince wouldn't sanction that," she said. "He would use his veto, of course."