Prince William and Kate Middleton royal wedding: Do monarchies still matter?
Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding may have tinges of the turreted-castle fairy tale. But from romantic to ruthless, more than 40 modern monarchies, including Prince William's family, still influence global realities for better or worse.
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Across Europe, monarchies became casualties of World War I, swept away as a new political order was fashioned from the Continent's killing fields.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The kings and queens of modern monarchies
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Today, the Spanish monarchy is perhaps the most politically significant in Europe.
King Juan Carlos earned the respect of Spaniards not only for his role in leading the democratic transition of his country after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, but also for defending the newly gained liberty during a failed coup in 1981.
Indeed, Juan Carlos is a sort of guarantor of democracy and liberty for Spaniards, says Carmen Enríquez, a journalist who has chronicled the Spanish royal family for more than 15 years.
"If the king had wanted, that coup would have been successful," Ms. Enríquez says. "If he hadn't come out on TV to oppose it, the military would not have stepped down."
Spain's popular king is the official head of state, but never intervenes publicly in politics. (Although at a 2007 Ibero-American summit he famously responded to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who was interrupting a Spanish official's speech, by asking "Why don't you shut up?")
But unlike the British royals, the king's every move is not followed. Private news about the royal family is rarely aired, and when it is, it refers to the prince and princesses, never the king and queen.
Polls show younger generations don't share their parents' respect for the crown, even if support for a monarchic succession remains at around 70 percent. But the population still looks to the king to mediate the often sour division between right and left political parties that continues to divide Spaniards.
On the other side of the world – in Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan, for example – monarchies have ancient roots in religion and are deeply revered by much of their populations, even when they've played controversial roles in using their iconic power to unite their nations in times of political strife. Some critics consider them an ancient damper on modern democracy – particularly in the developing nations of Cambodia and Thailand – where showers of arbitrary royal largess can perpetuate the notion that power resides in a person, not the people.
In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk – the "king father" whose son, Norodom Sihamoni, is the acting king – saw the country through independence in 1953. Through a period of instability starting in 1970 – that included war with Vietnam and the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge – King Sihanouk managed sometimes awkward alliances within Cambodia that allowed him eventually to help his country regain stability after 1989.