People in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein vote next week on whether to legalize abortion _ but they know their voice may count for nothing.
The prince has already made up his mind.
Hereditary Prince Alois of Liechtenstein, heir apparent to a billion-dollar banking dynasty and de facto ruler over 35,000 people, says he will exercise his veto if the people favor a referendum to legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy or if the child is severely disabled.
The announcement last month raised hackles in the Alpine nation. It comes as no revelation that the crown prince has inherited some of his father's strong Catholic views. But voters were surprised by the fact that Alois is prepared to overrule a popular vote if the outcome doesn't suit his taste.
"We think fewer people will vote because they'll ask themselves what's the point. It really is an attempt to actively influence the referendum," said Helen Konzett, who helped gather the 1,500 signatures necessary to call the vote, slated for Sept. 18.
In Liechtenstein, which is smaller than Washington, DC but has its own seat at the United Nations, interfering in a referendum is considered a criminal offense. Only not for the prince, who according to the constitution is immune from prosecution while in office.
Konzett, a mother of two, said efforts to bring Liechtenstein's laws in line with those of neighboring Austria would now likely fail.
At the moment, women who have an abortion risk one year imprisonment, except in cases where the mother's life is in danger or she is under 14 at the time she got pregnant. Doctors who carry out an abortion can go to prison for three years.
Even if the abortion is carried out elsewhere, women can be punished for it when they return to Liechtenstein.
As a result, up to 50 Liechtenstein women go abroad secretly each year to have an abortion, mostly in Austria and Switzerland. Many more receive counseling there and decide to continue the pregnancy.
Campaigners concede that the law is rarely applied anymore. An estimated two cases have been brought forward in the past twenty years.
But if the authorities are alerted to the fact that a woman has had an abortion, they are compelled by law to investigate, said Konzett.
"There is legal insecurity. At the moment women don't dare talk about having an abortion, not even with their best friends," she said. "This taboo adds to the pressure on the unborn child because women don't have the option of calmly considering how to proceed."
Some in Liechtenstein feel the prince is right to take a stand on the issue. The country remains one of the few to have Catholicism as its state religion. In a speech on Liechtenstein's national holiday Aug. 15, Alois said the proposed law change could lead to late-term abortions of disabled children.
"Until now we have been proud to support people with disabilities in our country. The proposal would discriminate against such people and allow them to be eliminated in the womb," he said.
The prince declined several requests for an interview. But a spokeswoman, Silvia Hassler-De Vos, told The Associated Press that the prince "wanted to send a clear signal that abortion isn't an acceptable solution for an unwanted pregnancy."
"At the same time the situation of women with unwanted pregnancies needs to be significantly improved and a more child friendly environment needs to be created."
Even opponents of the law change are uneasy about a prospective princely veto.
"I don't think it's good for the referendum," said Adolf Heeb, chairman of the Patriotic Union party whose lawmakers rejected the proposal in parliament in June. "It would have been better if he had made his decision after the vote."
Alois would be the first prince to use his veto since his grandfather, Franz Joseph II, blocked a revision of the country's hunting laws three decades ago. Hans-Adam II, Alois' father and some say still the silent power behind the throne, never exercised this right. But he did push through a new constitution in 2003 that gave the monarch greater powers, including to appoint judges and fire the government without reason.
"Liechtenstein's constitution is a massive anomaly," said Markus Schefer, professor of constitutional law at the University of Basel, Switzerland.
Except for the glitzy Mediterranean principality of Monaco and the Vatican, no other country in Europe has so much power vested in a single, unelected individual.
When voters approved the 2003 constitutional reforms, they did so for economic, rather than political reasons, said Schefer. "Liechtensteiners have come to terms with the fact that the prince holds political power and can't be deposed, because he's made sure that everyone is very well off."
That could change if the country, which has a per capita GDP three times that of the United States and second only to Qatar, suffers an economic crisis.
Liechtenstein came close to ruin in the wake of the financial crisis, when governments around the world put pressure on the country to close loopholes that had allowed foreign tax evaders to hide money with the help of its secretive trust and banks _ including LGT Bank, which is owned by the royal family. Disaster was averted when the government pledged to cooperate in tax evasion investigations, but the episode rattled a population grown used to a very high standard of living.
Jochen Hadermann, chairman of Liechtenstein's Democratic Movement, a group campaigning for constitutional reform, said it would take more than one threat to use the veto before voters consider the theoretical, but highly impractical, possibility of deposing the prince.
"We don't have a despot up there," he said, pointing to the prince's castle that looms over the capital Vaduz and its modest 25-seat parliament. "But we do have a very power-conscious family that limits the rights of the people when their own interests are at stake."