The Rhine River forms Liechtenstein's western boundary; the Swiss canton of St. Gallen is on the other bank. To the east is the Austrian province of Vorarlberg, and to the south are the Grisons of Switzerland. Liechtenstein is cradled by the Drei Schwestern (Three Sisters) mountains.
About 35,000 citizens live in 11 communes (comparable to Switzerland's cantons). Most -- more than 80% -- are Roman Catholic and of German ancestry. They enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world and pay very little in taxes. Unemployment is rare.
The country's prosperity, however, is a relatively recent development. Many old-timers remember the hardships of World War I, when the country was virtually cut off from food supplies because of blockades. The social and economic growth since the end of World War II has exceeded that of any other Western nation. Today, Liechtenstein is one of the most highly industrialized countries in Europe. The industry is hardly noticeable, however, because the factories and workshops are dispersed among orchards, meadows, and woodlands. There are no smokestacks, with their pollution from fumes. One of the industrial specialties is the production of false teeth.
Liechtenstein has a rich cultural life, supported by royal patrons and the cooperation of neighboring countries. Though open to foreign influences through commerce and cultural exchanges as well as through tourism, Liechtenstein maintains its unique national identity by severely restricting citizenship. Any foreigner wishing to become a citizen must first be approved by a majority of the commune he or she intends to live in; then his or her application must be approved by parliament, and then by the monarch. The process is obviously meant to discourage immigration.
Most residents of Liechtenstein speak a German dialect. English is also understood throughout the country.
The Principality of Liechtenstein is a constitutional hereditary monarchy with a unicameral parliament (Diet). The state power is vested in the prince and the people. The prince's powers are passed on through hereditary succession to the throne and are independent of the will of the people. The people also have political power and must work together with the prince, according to the constitution.
Members of the parliament are chosen for 4 years by general elections. The right to vote is universal (women received the right to vote in 1984), secret, and direct. Public referendum is an important right of all citizens. Any law passed by the Diet that is not declared urgent may be put to referendum. The constitution also assures freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
Liechtenstein has a prime minister and four councilors, appointed by the prince for a 4-year term. They act as a link between the prince and the Diet.
Liechtenstein made world headlines in 2003 when its prince, Hans-Adam II, demanded and got sweeping powers in a nationwide referendum. If he weren't granted these powers, he had threatened to move to Austria. Desperate to hold onto their prince, 64.3% of the electorate voted to give him such rights as the power to dismiss governments and approve judicial nominees. The revised constitution also allows the prince to veto laws simply by refusing to sign them within a 6-month period. The prince likened the opposition to "World War II traitors." One supporter, Adriana Dill, told the press: "The country should be exactly the way the prince wants to have it. It's his country. It has his name on it." Former prime minister Mario Frick said otherwise, claiming the referendum made Liechtenstein "an international laughingstock."
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