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Can Spain’s monarchy survive the abdication of Juan Carlos I?

The Spanish monarchy has been thrown into crisis after the king, Juan Carlos I, announced his decision to abdicate the throne after 39 years in favour of his son Felipe. The news was conveyed via the royal…

It’s best for Spain. But can Felipe revitalise the monarchy? EPA/Hugo Ortuno

The Spanish monarchy has been thrown into crisis after the king, Juan Carlos I, announced his decision to abdicate the throne after 39 years in favour of his son Felipe. The news was conveyed via the royal household’s Twitter account and confirmed by a letter signed by Juan Carlos and posted shortly afterwards. He then made a televised address to the nation thanking the Spanish people for their support.

But the smooth succession from father to son was put in doubt after thousands of people took to the streets to call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy and more than 70,000 people signed an online petition urging Spain’s politicians to use this “historical opportunity to promote a public debate that will help regenerate democracy and determine the future of the monarchy”.

Whatever else may be written about Juan Carlos, his four-decade rule has enabled Spain to transition from the right-wing dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco to a modern pluralistic social democracy. In the course of his reign the king has been one of Europe’s most popular monarchs, although scandals in recent years have tarnished his record somewhat and are probably partly behind the popular demand for a constitutional debate.

Born in Rome on January 5, 1938, Juan Carlos moved to Spain aged ten where he was groomed by Franco as a successor. In 1969 Franco named him as his heir, giving him the title of Prince of Spain. At this stage Juan Carlos publicly supported Franco, even acting as proxy head of state for Franco during the dictator’s final days – but all the while he was holding secret meeetings with reformist politicians.

He became king on November 22, 1975, two days after Franco’s death. It was a time of uncertainty and flux in Spanish politics. Many questioned the role Juan Carlos would play in Spain’s fledgling democracy and he immediately found himself at odds with right-wing politicians for not continuing Franco’s authoritarian policies, instead looking to left-wing, republican parties for support.

An early defining moment came during the abortive military coup of February 1981 when, as captain-general of the armed forces, in full uniform, he addressed the nation in a television broadcast to support the democratically-elected government during a TV broadcast. He used this to contradict claims by the coup leaders that he supported their actions. The coup failed and his popularity soared – even Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the just-legalised Communist Party who had dubbed the king “Juan Carlos the brief” in reference to what he presumed would be a short reign – expressed his admiration for the king’s decisive action.

Despite some remaining republicanism and independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque region, public support for Juan Carlos remained strong for the next three decades. Juan Carlos travelled the world as an effective ambassador for Spain and Spanish interests and the weddings of his three children were celebrated as major international events. In 2007 he became a YouTube sensation in the Spanish-Speaking world when, at an Ibero-American Summit in Chile, he interrupted the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez by asking him “why don’t you shut up?” (¿Por qué no te callas?). This phrase was picked up by the Spanish public and soon featured in the press, in jokes, on t-shirts and on social media.

Why don’t you just shut up?

Scandal and crisis

But the economic crisis in 2008 brought a change in public perception of the monarchy, particularly their use of public money to fund an extravagant lifestyle. A biography of Queen Sofía reported her views against gay marriage, and the king’s eldest daughter, Infanta Elena, divorced in 2009 – the first child of Spanish royalty to do so.

Meanwhile Juan Carlos' personal popularity took a dive in April 2012 when a photograph was published showing him posing with a dead elephant during a hunting trip to Botswana. The expensive trip was perceived as a slap in the face of crisis-hit Spaniards, even though the royal household insisted it had not been paid for with taxpayers' money. In addition, as honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the king’s behaviour was criticised as irresponsible. The WWF responded by removing him from his post as honorary president and the king issued a rare apology. What made it worse was that it emerged that he had not been travelling with Queen Sofía, but with German aristocrat Princess Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. It later transpired that she had accompanied him on several trips. The press, who had always respected the privacy of the royal family, began to print stories about alleged infidelities.

The royal family was further rocked by the revelation that Infanta Cristina’s husband, Iñaki Urdangarín, was under investigation for an alleged embezzlement of millions of euro of public money. He was later charged. Cristina was formally named as a suspect in 2013 and charged early in January this year.

The growing sense of scandal and waste has taken its toll on his popularity – his approval rating fell to 41% and there were further calls for his abdication, even from people who had previously supported him. His health has also been poor: he has undergone a series of hip operations after several falls. In January this year Juan Carlos made his first public appearance in two months for the “Pascua Militar”, the opening of the military year. Looking frail, his speech was hesitant and he stumbled over his words, which prompted renewed talk of abdication.

Can the monarchy survive?

In his abdication statement, Juan Carlos referred to Prince Felipe, 46, as “the incarnation of stability” – and he is well prepared for the job, having studied in Canada and the US as well as completing his military training in Spain. He has stood in for his father on several occasions and his personal popularity has remained strong with an approval rating of about 66%.

Middle-class monarchy: King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia EPA/Ignacio Lopez

Felipe VI will bring a new style to the Spanish monarchy, with his wife, former news anchor Letizia Ortiz, styled as “the first middle-class queen”. The couple is generally well-liked, but the institution of monarchy has suffered in the last few years – and Felipe won’t have the opportunity, like his father did, to appear as the saviour of democracy.

The revisionists are already at work. Despite all the recent criticism, the Spanish media are falling over themselves to praise Juan Carlos and his many achievements. And when the dust settles, Felipe will have to face some difficult challenges: Spain is still deeply in economic crisis with high unemployment and a political class dogged by accusations of corruption. As for Felipe, all eyes will be on his investment ceremony (there will be no coronation as the king of Spain doesn’t wear a crown) and how much public money is spent on it.

Meanwhile he will have to weather the storm of his own sister’s trial. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, if she is cleared, the public will assume preferential treatment. If Cristina is found guilty and sentenced, all eyes will be on how she is punished. The outcome of the trial, and Felipe’s reaction to it, will be a key point of reference for how he is perceived by Spaniards and perhaps the future of the Spanish monarchy.

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    Very sad. The bravery and resolution of Juan Carlos during the attempted coup was something very few Spaniards who remember it will forget. He was perhaps the only monarch in history supported – at the time – by the left.

    Which makes the more recent scandals even less understandable.

    I think it's time for a decent republic in Spain.

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    1. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Well, France seems pretty OK. and The USA seems to muddle along somehow. But looking through the list, I take your point. But is the fault of republicanism that many are in economic chaos?

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  2. alfred venison

    records manager (public secotr)

    maybe when they have a national discussion about the role of the monarchy they can have a tete a tete about federalism and maybe forging some kind of sovereignty association with catalonia. just saying, that just saying the constitution prohibits discussion of it is just not good enough. –a.v.

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  3. Aleksandra Hadzelek

    Lecturer in International Studies at University of Technology, Sydney

    Thanks Fernando for this prompt article. I agree that fraud allegations of Cristina de Borbon and her husband will have a huge impact on the way Spanish society will accept (or reject) the new king.

    It is remarkable to see the speed with which the issue of succession is dealt with. The two previous abdications in Europe (Holland and Belgium) were announced and planned well in advance; here there is sense of urgency that clealry indicates that this is a very contentious issue. There is the lack of popular support for the institution of monarchy as whole, as well as the doubtful role that Felipe could play in contemporary circumstances. The announcement came just after the success of left wing parties in the European elections, and there is still the unresolved issue of what will happen in response to Catalonia's referendum. The timing of this abdication is as important as the decision itself.

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