The prince, whose aristocratic roots stretch back nearly a millennium, describes himself as "a convinced democrat committed to a form of democracy that far exceeds what is normal today," even if it's hardly the norm nowadays for monarchs to be more than symbolic leaders much less have anywhere close to his degree of power. But he sees no contradiction in tenaciously clinging to inherited dynastic privilege. Prince Alois, who attended the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, is only slightly more circumspect, warning parliament in March that the princely house would not serve as a "fig leaf" for policies it did not support and "would completely withdraw from political life in Liechtenstein" if it lost the "necessary political instruments."
Adherents of the prince in the tiny country, once part of the Holy Roman Empire and only actually inhabited by the Liechtenstein royal family since 1938 (they lived primarily in Austria and what is now the Czech Republic until the rise of Nazism) hail what's called a "dualistic" political system, whereby policy is shaped jointly by the princely house and a 25-member parliament. A large portrait of Prince Hans-Adam hangs in the chamber as if to keep an eye on the proceedings. The legislators, who serve on a part-time basis, rose in the prince's defense on May 23, voting 18 to 7 against the citizens' initiative as part of the procedure to put the referendum on the veto power before the public. Although open threats of a royal veto are rare, David Beattie, a former British ambassador to Liechtenstein, notes that the prince and his son regularly meet behind closed doors with officials, so "it's impossible to know how many times government policy may have been influenced by the possibility of a veto."
There are only two newspapers in the 60-square-mile principality, and neither reports critically on the princely family. But a newly published book in German revealed that a bank Prince Hans-Adam owns paid hush money to a former employee involved in several crimes, and the prince himself made judicial interventions on the man's behalf in a failed attempt to thwart his release of data on secret account holders evading taxes in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere.
The book, The Data Thief: How Heinrich Kieber Triggered the Greatest Tax Scandal in History, written by Liechtenstein journalist Sigvard Wohlwend, who also serves as spokesman for the "Yes -- Make Your Vote Count" initiative, recounts that the princely LGT bank paid over $500,000 to Kieber and that the prince intervened in closed court to obtain a favorable judgment for the former employee who still sold the names of account holders at a division of the LGT Group, blasting a hole in the country's allure for those seeking financial secrecy. "I don't know how high the sum was," the prince told me when I asked about it.
The transaction wasn't illegal in Liechtenstein, but it put an uncomfortable spotlight on the royal family's role in seeking to preserve a bank secrecy long condemned by the OECD. Kieber, a former data-entry worker at the bank, ended up testifying before a U.S. Senate hearing in 2008 on Liechtenstein's offshore banking practices. Later that year, the scandal resulted in the principality agreeing to share information on banking clients with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
The prince, of course, would rather expound upon his own book than his country's banking scandal. As we talked, he picked up my own copy, with a cover bearing his coat of arms, framed by a rippling ermine cloak and crown atop. He calls it "a cookbook of political recipes, gathered over centuries by my ancestors and over decades by myself." His dream is "the creation of numerous small principalities throughout the world, where people can live in happiness and freedom," and the book concludes with a sample constitution that -- just like Liechtenstein's -- sets heads of state above the law, exempt from prosecution. Feel free to adapt as necessary.
But his threat to abandon his subjects has some of them fearing for their future, anxious that Liechtenstein would lose its chief distinguishing characteristic in an age of globalization. "Without the prince, we're nothing," fretted parliamentary president Klaus Wanger during debate on the 2003 referendum. Now, that sentiment is being echoed again ahead of this weekend's referendum. Across the tiny country, pro-monarchists wear gold pins in the shape of the crown and festoon their cars with bumper stickers bearing the slogan, "For God, Prince and Fatherland."