Liechtenstein - Political background

Liechtenstein is the last surviving monarchy of the Holy Roman Empire and owes its existence to the will of its ruling family. From its origins in the twelfth century, the House of Liechtenstein played a prominent role in the history of imperial Austria, providing numerous politicians, generals, and diplomats. Raised to princely rank in reward for its services, the family sought one further distinction, its own sovereign territory.

Prince Hans Adam von Liechtenstein bought the Reichsherrshaft of Schellenberg in 1699 and the Grafschaft Vaduz in 1712 from the Counts von Hohenems. On 23 January 1719, these two territories were combined by imperial edict to form the Reichsfüstentum Liechtenstein, thereby fulfilling the family's ambitions. The historical components of the principality are still reflected in the two voting districts of today. The country is divided into eleven communes for purposes of local government.

Although the major landholdings of the House of Liechtenstein were expropriated by Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and Hungary after World War II, the family still owns large estates in Austria, which have more land than the principality itself. In addition to other properties in Texas and Arkansas, the family owns the largest vineyards in Liechtenstein, a world-renowned art gallery in Vaduz, and one of the country's three banks. The value of the art holdings at the death of Prince Franz Josef II in 1989 was estimated at US $150 million. The family's total wealth has been estimated to worth up to US $3 billion, among the largest fortunes in Europe.

The principality is a constitutional monarchy with succession through the male line. The Constitution dates from 5 October 1921, and divides power between the ruling prince and the people. The prince is head of state with powers to call and dissolve the Diet (parliament) and to appoint the head of government, though this traditionally means following the wishes of a majority of the Diet. All legislation must be approved by the prince to become law. The prince also represents his country in foreign affairs, with the proviso that treaties must be approved by the Diet. Unlike most other Europeans monarchs, the princes of Liechtenstein remain more than mere figureheads; in fact, Hans Adam's powers were expanded through a 2003 referendum. The personal power of the prince coexists with the democratic rights of his subjects.

The unicameral Diet was expanded from 15 to 25 members by referendum in 1988. Members are elected by proportional representation and serve four-year terms. The people also have the right of initiative and referendum. Citizens over the age of 20 have the right to vote. Women could not vote until approval of female suffrage in a referendum on 1 July 1984, after two previous referenda had been defeated by the country's male voters. The 1986 elections were the first in which women could participate in politics and saw the first woman elected to the Diet.

The highest body of the government is the five-member Collegial Board, which functions as a cabinet. The board is chaired by the head of government, also the leader of the majority party in the Diet. The deputy head of government is from the second party. The three other government councilors are split between the parties. The coalition arrangement has lasted since 1938, when a coalition was first formed because of the mounting threat from Nazi Germany (neighboring Austria had just been absorbed in the Anschluss) and a small Nazi movement was operating in Liechtenstein.

Two political parties have dominated the government of modern Liechtenstein. They are the Patriotic Union Party (VU) and the Progressive Citizen's Party (FBPL). The VU and FBPL are similar in philosophy and both support the monarchy, although the VU did not support Prince Hans Adam's attempt to modify the Constitution in the 2003 referendum. The motto of both parties is "Faith in God, Prince and Fatherland." From 1928 to 1970, the FBPL was the majority party. The VU held the majority from 1970 to 1974, when the FBPL regained the advantage. From 1978 through the 1997 elections, the VU held the majority, but the balance of power shifted to the FBPL after the 2001 election, which gave the FBPL 13 seats, the VU 11 seats, and the Free List (FL) party, one seat. Since 2001, Otmar Hosler has been the head of government and Rita Kiebler-Beck has been deputy head of government.

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