From a cliff-top fortress that looks more like Count Dracula's abode than Cinderella's fairy-tale castle, Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein looks down on the capital of his micro-nation, content that he has the final say on its rule.
With a net worth estimated at $7 billion, the silver-haired monarch ranks among the world's richest heads of state, and he owns one of the most important art collections in private hands. His conservative principality, nestled between Austria and Switzerland, has the planet's second-highest GDP per capita, and it is an island of economic stability in troubled Europe. But discontented rumblings are afoot after Prince Hans-Adam's heir, 44-year-old Prince Alois, threatened to veto the result of a referendum last fall aimed at overturning Liechtenstein's ban on abortion.
Although Prince Hans-Adam supports a formal division of church and state, he and his family do not hide their Catholic devotion. Eighty percent of their principality's population of 36,000 is also Catholic. A massive carving of Jesus on the cross looms over the fireplace in Prince Hans-Adam's vaulted office, and when he showed me around the 130-room castle this past winter, we stopped in a chapel adorned with a Gothic altar where he and his offspring pray regularly.
But unlike in the United States, where the battle over abortion rights is part of a larger cultural war, the tempest in Liechtenstein is not primarily related to religious belief: Rather, it centers on the extraordinary degree of political power retained by a dynastic leader in the heart of 21st-century democratic Europe.
"Dominions … are either accustomed to live under a prince or to live in freedom," wrote Machiavelli. Liechtenstein is accustomed to having some of both, but Prince Hans-Adam clearly tipped the balance when he used a 2003 constitutional referendum approved by 64 percent of the electorate to increase his leverage over parliament and the courts, obtaining power to irreversibly veto any law, dissolve the legislature, and appoint judges. But since November's unsuccessful bid to allow abortion -- it failed in the wake of a princely threat to veto it if it gained voter approval -- a new citizens' initiative is pushing for limits on the royal veto prerogative.
Even so, neither power nor money fully satisfies Prince Hans-Adam, who talks in terms of generations rather than the short-term goals of most elected leaders. To ensure a smooth succession, in 2004 he appointed his son Prince Alois as his representative in running day-to-day government matters, but he remains head of state and still exerts considerable influence. Prince Hans-Adam, free from the daily rigors of governance, has recently sought international recognition by writing a book -- called The State in the Third Millennium and published in 10 languages so far -- presenting Liechtenstein's odd constitutional monarchy as a model for other countries.
He also donated $12 million to Princeton University in 2000 to found the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, where he and his son serve as advisors. "Putting The 'Prince' Back In 'Princeton,'" a student blog at the university commented in 2010 on the 10th anniversary of the institute, which organizes research on governance and sovereignty issues in places like Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union. So far, it has avoided dealing with Liechtenstein itself, perhaps because academic scrutiny in a freewheeling intellectual setting might prove awkward for the princely benefactor. "He takes a real interest but does not try to influence it," said Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, an Austrian who directs the institute.