As Spain suffers its worst crisis in 40 years, its once beloved monarchy is in turmoil. Will it survive?
Juan Carlos’s story is that of modern Spain. When General Franco, his tutor, died, the king oversaw the transition to democracy (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
In April, King Juan Carlos I of Spain went hunting. Even at 74 years old, the sprightly king likes to keep up one of his favourite hobbies. This time he was off to Botswana. It was a private affair, and meant to stay under wraps. But after four days in Africa, Juan Carlos got up at dawn in search of a bathroom, tripped on a stair, and fell. His hip was broken in three places.
He flew back to Madrid for emergency surgery. As he lay in hospital, rumours spread in the press about the precise details of the trip. Queen Sofía, who was on holiday in her native Greece, did not return immediately to be with her husband. Word also got out that the hunting trip, though not on the public dime, had cost more than the average Spaniard’s annual salary.
In an unprecedented move, Juan Carlos issued an apology on national television. Scraping out on crutches to meet journalists at the hospital, Juan Carlos pronounced eleven words in Spanish: “I’m really sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.” The statement reverberated as much for its symbolism as for its ambiguity. Was the king crestfallen, or down-to-earth? And what, exactly, wouldn’t happen again?
Public apologies are almost unheard of among Spanish politicians and royals. But the king had to say something. At the nadir of the country’s economic crisis, Juan Carlos was shooting elephants in Africa. “The contrast was stark,” said Fernando Jiménez, a professor of politics at the University of Murcia.
“The king has gone on thousands of hunting trips,” said Jaime Peñafiel, an 80-year-old monarchy watcher for the newspaper El Mundo. This is the same man, Peñafiel said, whom Spaniards have known and accepted for decades. “The king has always been this way; what has changed is the country.”
Juan Carlos embodies the history of modern Spain—and like the country itself, he and his dynasty are now in trouble. In the late 1970s, after the death of the longstanding dictator General Francisco Franco, the king presided over Spain’s fledgling democracy. His pivotal role in the transition from fascism to democracy made the Spanish monarchy into a treasured national institution, almost beyond criticism. It became virtually synonymous with the new democratic order.
That view is starting to come under fire. “For the past few years a growing swathe of the population, particularly young people and leftists, have been questioning the process of the transition [to democracy],” said Fernando Jiménez. “The king personifies [that era] and is the most obvious target of attacks.”
The country’s current woes have made matters worse. A quarter of Spaniards are jobless, including half of Spain’s young people, thousands of homeowners have been evicted, and politics is stuck in the gridlock of austerity. The economy has buckled under €65bn of tax hikes and spending cuts. Spain is the eurozone’s fourth largest economy—it teeters at the continent’s peril. “Never before has there been a crisis so unexpected, and that’s affected so many people,” said José Bono, former president of the national congress. Unemployment was nearly as high in the 1980s. But then, according to historian Santos Juliá, “there was confidence that the country was reconstituting itself to enter the European economic community. There were expectations for the future.” Europe is now a world of constricted opportunities.
Now words like estafa (fraud) and corrupción circle over any mention of the political class. For two years running, the “Indignados,” young Spaniards who have taken to the streets to protest against austerity measures and unemployment, have sounded a nonpartisan rebuke: “The politicians do not represent us.” The king, too, has been absorbed into the ubiquitous imagery of institutional failure. Juan Carlos has become a limping symbol of a once-celebrated ruling order brought low.
The king’s hunting fiasco capped a bizarre week in which his 13 year-old grandson Felipe Juan Froilán had accidentally shot himself in the foot when hunting with his father in northern Spain. This one-two blow to the royal family’s credibility came just months after an even more damaging scandal. In February the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, appeared in court to face questions regarding allegations of misuse of public funds. Urdangarin’s case is still pending.
The king, like his cohorts across the continent, is constitutionally immune from legal prosecution. But now, even these age-old prerogatives have become a target. A new satirical magazine called Mongolia—a punchy, progressive monthly—titled its April issue: “The King Could Rape You: 100 things the king can do and you can’t.”
“Urdangarin’s misdeeds are precisely the sort of corruption that the current economic crisis has laid bare,” said Santos Juliá. “What went on during the boom years, before the present fallout, was the mixing of public and private prerogatives,” he said. “Municipal and regional governments funded lavish public works with all the easy money floating around, and networks of corruption sprang up. When news broke about the [king’s son-in-law], the public perception was: “the crown was involved in this sort of thing, too?’”
These scandals have come at a delicate time in the history of Spain’s monarchy—just as the king is preparing to hand over the reins to his son, Prince Felipe. The Palace has tried to adapt to a new climate of scrutiny. In February it hired a former journalist, as opposed to a diplomat, as its new press director. The king now has a website and a blog. The strategy is to highlight all his work, especially his globetrotting to promote Spanish businesses. But this also risks overexposing him. “The king cannot improve his image at this point,” said Elvira Lindo, a journalist at El País. “He has shored up all the capital he’ll ever have… The more he goes around to burnish his image, the more of a mess he’ll inevitably make of it.”
Lindo has a point. In September, Juan Carlos posted remarks on his website about the brewing showdown over independence for Catalonia, another row the eurozone crisis has exacerbated. It was only natural for a symbol of national unity to admonish the pro-independence camp. But his remarks were clumsy—even political allies, requesting anonymity, told me the king had made a mistake.
It would be inconceivable in any other western European monarchy for missteps like these, however clanking and maladroit, to raise existential questions about the viability of the institution itself. But in Spain that is precisely what has happened. No one is talking about storming the Zarzuela Palace, exactly. And yet it is not outlandish to question whether the country still needs a monarchy. “Spain is not, and never has been, a country of monarchists,” journalist and documentary historian Victoria Prego told me, when I went to see her at her office at El Mundo. “Juan Carlos changed that.”
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King Juan Carlos is a member of the Borbón line that has ruled Spain, on and off, since 1700. In 1931, the election of the anti-monarchist Second Republic sent his grandfather, Alfonso XIII, into exile in France. When civil war broke out five years later, the royal family supported the nationalist rebels fighting to overthrow the republic. Their victory in 1939 brought General Franco to power. Despite his promises to reinstate the royals, Franco balked at the prospect of sharing power with a competing figurehead. Years of demurrals and evasions followed. In 1941, with the family still marooned abroad, Alfonso XIII died and his son Don Juan de Borbón took up the cause.
Eventually, Franco made a brazen proposal: that Don Juan send his 10-year-old son, Juan Carlos, to be educated under Franco’s tutelage. Franco could then give the impression that the royal family had finally made peace with his rule as regent, while Don Juan could entertain the illusion that Franco was grooming the prince for an eventual transfer of power back to the Borbóns. The boy “would be a hostage,” wrote the historian Paul Preston. Don Juan consented, and his bewildered son, who had been living in Switzerland, left for a country in which he had never before set foot.
In 1969, Franco named Juan Carlos as his heir, designating him “Prince of Spain,” as opposed to the Borbón title “Prince of Asturias.” By changing the title, Franco pointedly “broke with the continuity… of the Borbón line,” according to Preston. This was not a restoration of the old monarchy. The announcement left Don Juan feeling badly betrayed by his son. Yet Juan Carlos had little choice; he was trapped between his father and Franco, whom he regarded as like a grandfather.
In 1977, with Franco dead, there was an awkward abdication ceremony. It was pure symbolism at that point: Don Juan was ceding the throne to his son, who had been the de facto king for two years. They stiffly shook hands and avoided eye contact. Their discomfort was palpable—each stood rigid by the other’s side, staring straight ahead.
By then, Juan Carlos had become a political protagonist in his own right, and even an unlikely democrat. He had spent the twilight years of Franco’s life in careful pursuit of allies and a new image for the monarchy. At the time the international community, as well as the Spanish left, viewed Juan Carlos with suspicion. The right, meanwhile, harboured doubts about his fidelity to Franco’s legacy. There were murmurings that this would be the reign of “Juan Carlos the Brief.”
Yet Juan Carlos and his advisors understood that the route to institutional longevity lay with democracy. A few years earlier, the Carnation Revolution had toppled the dictatorship in Portugal, while in Greece, Juan Carlos’s own brother-in-law, King Constantine, had lost power to the military. By contrast, Juan Carlos’s handpicked prime minister legalised left wing parties. Soon after, representatives of five different parties, spanning the political spectrum, drew up a constitution.
A sense of deep loyalty to the king took root, especially among those on the left, whom Juan Carlos had brought into the political process after their persecution under Franco. Author José García Abad, in his book La Soledad del Rey, describes it as a “marriage of convenience between the monarchy and democracy.” Even so, Spain is unique in being a country where republicans unflinchingly declare their respect for the king. Cándido Méndez, the affable secretary general of Spain’s largest trade union, is a case and point: “I belong to a generation in which the debate was ‘dictatorship or democracy,’ not ‘republic or monarchy,’” he said.
Still, it took the dramatic events of 1981 to seal the public’s loyalty to King Juan Carlos. On 23rd February, a cadre of rogue generals launched a coup, during which 186 armed civil guardsmen stormed the parliament building and held 350 politicians at gunpoint. It was a moment of immense pressure for the king, who is the head of the armed forces. His former secretary, an erstwhile confidant, was one of the generals behind the uprising.
Six hours after the initial assault, Juan Carlos appeared on national television to denounce the militants and defend the constitution. He spoke for less than two minutes, but his words resounded as a powerful defence of democratic principles. In a recent interview, Paul Preston dubbed the king the bombero de la democracia, the fireman of democracy.
Juan Carlos had always had two sides in the public imagination: first as heir to the dictator and then as democracy’s saviour. His handling of the coup effectively buried the first and enshrined the second. Polls from a government research agency, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, showed that throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Spaniards credited the king, more than anyone else, with steering the country toward democracy. “No other past politician has ever enjoyed such high regard,” a former minister of defence told me.
Even after his annus horribilis this year, Juan Carlos remains a widely admired figure, particularly among an older generation of politicians and pundits. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, secretary general of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, is a case in point. Speaking to me in his Madrid office, where a painting of the socialist party’s founder hangs above his desk, Rubalcaba said he considered the king a kind of father figure. “He looked out for me, and for all of us politicians coming up through the ranks over the years, and now, like an aging parent, he depends on us too, in a way.”
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Since hip surgery, in April, Juan Carlos moves cautiously, in a kind of lurching, discombobulated shuffle. His neck and shoulders are stiff and upright, while his legs jangle out beneath him. But there is no gingerness, only glee, in actor Toni Albà’s impression of the king in a new musical about the royal family called La Familia Irreal.
In the show, a swarm of protestors, fired up by the current crisis, storm the Zarzuela Palace, forcing the royal entourage into hiding. Juan Carlos brings out a red phone to call a cast of bigwig politicos for help. But the numbers are either out of service, or else fronts for lovers’ cell phones. The family’s only recourse is to pile into a tiny apartment and disguise themselves as a normal Spanish family: parents and children under a single, rickety roof.
The script is peppered with the king’s recent statements: his hunting apology, the admonition on Catalan independence, a flubbed line from a trip to India. “Ten years ago this sort of comedy wouldn’t have been possible,” Jordi Ventura, one of the play’s writers, told me on the show’s opening night in Barcelona. He recalled an incident involving the satirical magazine El Jueves in 2007, when it had to pay a fine for a cover depicting the prince and princess having sex. Authorities at the time removed unsold issues from the news stands.
Five years on, Ventura thinks that the monarchy has reached an existential tipping point. He attributes it to the build up of “all the frivolousness of the monarchy: the glossy magazine coverage, the tabloid-style attention.” The monarchy is now more associated with tawdry headlines than stately gravitas. “Everything Juan Carlos did to secure his institution’s legitimacy,” Preston says, “was over by 1982.” Now, in the words of the historian Santos Juliá: “The king’s [celebrated] symbolic power is not enough anymore to overshadow recent scandals.” With most Spaniards suffering as the country reels under the eurozone crisis, old indulgences smack of excess. Perennial questions about the king’s personal fortune have resurfaced, as have public calls for more transparency about the Palace’s finances.
The issue of succession looms large. The accession of Prince Felipe to the throne will undoubtedly test the durability of Juan Carlos’s institutional legacy.
“Succession is like transferring a finite amount of water from one glass to another,” says Charles Powell, an expert on Spain’s monarchy. “You need to fill up the prince’s glass slowly, so as not to drain the king’s too soon, and yet the prince’s glass cannot be seen as half-empty, either.” Other monarchies have stored up centuries of tradition, a deep fount of inevitability. The Spanish monarchy draws its prestige from the comparatively shallow well of Juan Carlos’s achievements. Many Spaniards share Cándido Méndez’s assessment: the prince, he told me, is “serious and well-prepared… But everything the king has done, including how he carries himself, does not transfer to an heir.”
“He is better educated and better groomed than his father,” says author Javier Cercas. But Juan Carlos had a specific role to play. The “better qualified” Felipe will inherit a strictly ceremonial post. He has less to do than his father, and a harder time justifying himself. The institutional challenges now are cosmetic—this is its blessing and its curse. Felipe wants to symbolise unity at a time when crisis is pulling the country apart.
Many, like Serra and Powell, are not sure the king will abdicate in his lifetime. When the crown eventually passes to Felipe, the monarchy may return to favour. “This is a country that respects the dead,” said Serra. “The massive outpouring of support that would follow the king’s passing will put the public squarely behind Felipe.” Until then, the prince is in a holding pattern, while the country grapples with the aging symbolism of his father.
For now at least, judging by reactions to La Familia Irreal on opening night, the Spanish public are hungry for satire that channels their anger towards the country’s ruling elites. Smiles of surprise, somewhere between gasps and laughs, rippled through the audience.
The parting shot drew guffaws. Not sure how else to retake the throne, Juan Carlos and his family dress up like civil guardsmen and restage the 1981 coup that had cemented his standing. To set the scene, he and his family encourage the audience to stand. And once everyone’s up, with a Tarantino-like flourish, they scream at the theatregoers to “get the fuck down”; this is a hold-up. The king waves his pistol in the air. But instead of firing into the ceiling, as the original ringleader had, Juan Carlos drops his arm. Then, he shoots himself in the foot.