Election preview: Liechtenstein

One of Europe’s smallest countries, Liechtenstein, nestled in the Alps between Switzerland and Austria, goes to the polls tonight to elect a new parliament. The single house, called the Landtag, has 25 members, elected by proportional representation (Sainte-Laguë, or something very like it) in each of two districts, with an overall 8% threshold.

At the last election, in 2013, four parties – a record – won seats. But most of them went to the two traditional parties, both centre-right: the Progressive Citizens Party (FBP, more conservative), which won 40.0% of the vote and ten seats, and the Fatherland Union (VU, more liberal), with 33.5% and eight seats. The two formed a grand coalition, with FBP leader Adrian Hasler as prime minister.

In third place was a new party, the Independents – diverse, but basically populist – with 15.3% and four seats, while the remaining 11.1% and three seats went to the centre-left Free List.

So tonight will be another test, if only in miniature, of the fortunes of European populism. The Independents, as the main opposition, are well placed to take advantage of anti-government sentiments, since the two big parties, being in government together, are poorly placed to attack each other. (Much the same dynamic as favors the Freedom Party in neighboring Austria.)

But it’s a bit more complicated than that, because of Liechtenstein’s odd constitutional structure.

Basically, Liechtenstein has a semi-presidential system, not unlike France. Executive power is shared, sometimes uneasily, between the ministers, who are responsible to parliament, and the head of state (who isn’t). But instead of an elected president, the head of state is a hereditary prince, Hans-Adam II, who in 2004 delegated his powers to his eldest son and regent, Alois.

Not only has the prince, contrary to the general trend of monarchy in the last century or two, managed to maintain his powers, but in 2003 he actually secured approval of a referendum to increase them. Although the BBC rather overstated the case by saying that made him “an absolute monarch again,” it clearly improved his position. Hans-Adam had threatened to abdicate if the referendum was defeated, possibly taking the country’s name with him.

So for all its exotic quaintness, Liechtenstein raises some interesting questions for political theory. Does a country where people democratically vote to give powers to an unelected official still count as a democracy? (The Venice Commission, which reports to the Council of Europe, evidently thought not.) And can a power-sharing executive work when its two halves have radically different bases of legitimacy, or is one destined to become subordinate to the other?

There are plenty of precedents for authoritarian rulers legitimising their power by plebiscites that by-pass elected legislatures – Napoleon Bonaparte was a master of this. But Liechtenstein is very small, and it seems a bit different when there are only 15,000 people voting: surely they must be presumed to know what they’re doing?

Yet on all the evidence, most of Liechtenstein’s voters are quite happy with their less-then-democratic system. A 2012 referendum that would have curtailed the prince’s powers was defeated with a “no” vote of 76.4%.

And although the two older parties that embody the establishment both lost ground at the ensuing election, opinion polling suggests that the Independents’ voters are no more hostile to princely government. No surprise to observers who have seen “populists” elsewhere take out their anger mostly on the powerless.

The official election website is here; with any luck, results should appear Monday morning, Australian time.


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