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I have read that rotation among nine hereditary rulers of provinces determines who is King of Malaysia during a given 5-year term. This seems to stand out from related practices e.g. over the history of the Holy Roman Empire or between emirs in todays United Arab Emirates that tend(ed) to favor a single dynastic family while it lasted.

So my question is this: do we find other examples (in history or contemporary politics) where the most senior governmental role rotated between hereditary rulers of territories, families, or similar?

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The key phrase I had been looking for to define the type of monarchy you mean is an Elective Monarchy. The description for this type of monarchy is:

An elective monarchy is a monarchy ruled by an elected monarch, in contrast to a hereditary monarchy in which the office is automatically passed down as a family inheritance. The manner of election, the nature of candidate qualifications, and the electors vary from case to case. Historically it is not uncommon for elective monarchies to transform into hereditary ones over time, or for hereditary ones to acquire at least occasional elective aspects.

In this Wikipedia Article you will find a lot of examples of historic monarchies. A nice detail to this is this piece of text:

Many, if not most, kingdoms were officially elective historically, though the candidates were typically only from the family of the deceased monarch. Eventually, however, most elected monarchies introduced hereditary succession, guaranteeing that the title and office stayed within the royal family and specifying, more or less precisely, the order of succession.

Currently, the world's only true elective monarchies are:

  • Malaysia
  • Cambodia
  • The Vatican

So, even though there is some discussion about the inclusion of the Papacy, it does seem to belong in the answer of this question.

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    The papacy does not rotate, however. The pope is elected, and once elected remains pope for life, with no term or age limit, and subject to a strong tradition against abdication/resignation. Being pope is more analogous to the Holy Roman Emperor than King of Malaysia in that respect. – choster Feb 5 '13 at 23:23
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    The term "rotate" can be interpreted as having a limited term, like currently in Malaysia or United Arab Emirates Which is discussed in this Skeptics question as well. But, it can also be interpreted as having a monarchy/dictatorship that rotates the "crown" between a select family/group. I consider the papacy to be that kind of exclusive rotation. – Hendrik Beenker Feb 6 '13 at 8:51
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    The examples you are looking for beyond Malaysia and UAE are indeed pretty impossible to find. The Shogun system was one of rotation, but there was always the Emperor above it. I thinks like you said it will be almost impossible to find any family that would voluntarily rotate the crown, unless there was some force above them. However, I have found one in fiction: The Game Of Thrones, with the rotating power between the Seven Kingdoms ;-) – Hendrik Beenker Feb 6 '13 at 12:14
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    @Hendrink I still dispute the papacy's inclusion, as the College of Cardinals is not a hereditary group, and the papacy does not cycle among generations, ecclesiastical territories, religious institutes and orders, or any other way the cardinals could be divided. To say it "rotates" because the office is not open to the general public is to say every sovereign has "rotated" into his or her position. – choster Feb 6 '13 at 15:11
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    I updated my answer with a reference to historic and current Elective monarchies (The term I was looking for). And I still kept the Vatican in there, because it is an elective monarchy, just like Malaysia. – Hendrik Beenker Feb 6 '13 at 15:43
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There is an example at least similar to what you search: the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück (Hochstift Osnabrück) in the Holy Roman Empire 1648-1803. After some chaos in the aftermath of the refomation the episcopal see switched between a Catholic - elected by the cathedral chapter - and Lutheran of the cadets of the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hannover). They did not have fixed terms but reigned till their dead or resignation. This was established 1648 in the Peace of Westphalia, Instrumentum Pacis Osnabrugensis Art. XIII § 6 and implemented in detail in the Capitulatio Perpetua Osnabrugensis of the Reichstag 1650.

During the duration of this arrangement there were only six prince-bishops (German list):

  • Franz Wilhelm, Count von Wartenberg (1625–1661, catholic, out of the House of Wittelsbach)
  • Ernst August I., Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1662–1698, lutheran)
  • Karl Joseph of Lorraine (1698–1715, catholic, grandson of emperor Ferdinand III.)
  • Ernst August II., Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1716–1728, lutheran)
  • Clemens August I., Duke of Bavaria (1728–1761, catholic, out of the House of Wittelsbach)
  • Friedrich, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Duke of York and Albany (1764–1802, lutheran)

Bishop Friedrich handed over the territory in the context of the secularization 1802 to his father George III., King of the United Kingdom, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.

So there was a rotation between the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg and the catholic houses of the Holy Roman Empire. No of the catholic houses managed it to establish a tradition of election out of their cadets.

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