Spain’s Poisoned Chalice

The Spanish monarchy is in big trouble, and not even a young, handsome new king may be able to do anything about it.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

If Queen Elizabeth II famously had an annus horribilis, King Juan Carlos’s announcement on Monday, June 2, that he is to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Felipe, comes after three spine-tingling years in which a series of scandals and mishaps have seen the Spanish royal family’s star fall from a lofty position far above the riff-raff of common politics to the gutter in which virtually all of the country´s institutions now languish. Once the top-ranked institution in periodic polls by the state-run Sociological Research Institute (CIS), 2011 saw the royal family slump to a failing grade of less than five out of 10, for the first time. Its favorability score in last month’s CIS survey was a miserable 3.72.

In a country where many on the left of the political spectrum made an exception in their republican worldview in deference to Juan Carlos’s crucial role in piloting Spain’s democratic transition after the 1975 death of the dictator Francisco Franco, it is hard to imagine a more hostile environment for the incoming monarch. The 46-year-old heir not only has to shore up evaporating support for the monarchy, but he has to do so at a time when virtually all of the institutions that brought about the country’s late 20th-century renewal have been discredited.

Since tens of thousands of mostly young protestors known as indignados first took to the streets and occupied plazas across Spain in May 2011 and as the euro crisis and subsequent recession saw unemployment climb up to and stay above 25 percent, political parties, labor unions, big business, and the judiciary have all felt the tide of public opinion turn against them. Corruption and abuse of authority are perceived as standard practice among the country’s elites. The ruling center-right Popular Party is mired in a slush-fund scandal centered on its jailed former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas; the main opposition Socialist Party and its labor union associates are under the microscope in their Andalucian fiefdom over misspent funds meant to help the unemployed; former National Business Association chief Gerardo Díaz Ferrán is in jail after embezzling his own bankrupt company; and the country’s top judge, Carlos Dívar, had to resign from the Supreme Court after fiddling expense accounts.

So how did the royal family fall into this morass of ignominy? In 2011, the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, became the focus of a fraud investigation after he and his former partner at the helm of a supposedly non-profit PR and event management firm were accused of channeling millions of euros in public funds into their own pockets via tax havens after overcharging regional governments for services rendered. The king used his televised Christmas address that year to underline that "no one is above the law," and both Urdangarin and his wife, Princess Cristina, were frozen out of official royal engagements. But they were not cut off altogether. Prince Felipe is reported to have urged a stronger response against the couple, but the king sought to protect his youngest daughter from the slow-moving judicial dragnet. Ultimately, even the hiring of defense lawyer Miquel Roca, one of the framers of Spain’s 1978 Constitution, was not enough to prevent the couple’s sumptuous Barcelona mansion from being seized and the infanta herself being questioned in a Majorca court as a suspect in the case.

By this time, Juan Carlos had also disgraced himself, falling in the middle of the night and breaking his hip, forcing him to reveal in April 2012 that he had been on a secret elephant-hunting trip in Botswana. The king apologized to the whole country for his frivolity but the damage had been done. Five surgical operations later, abdication seems a logical step for the 76-year-old. Crown Prince Felipe is repeatedly described as having been "prepared" extremely thoroughly; with the king frequently out of action, he has taken on plenty of the diplomatic load in recent years. But can the prince connect with the Spanish public? He can hardly expect to enjoy a moment like King Juan Carlos’s dramatic public intervention when defusing the 1981 coup attempt against Congress.

King Juan Carlos’s legitimacy came from deeds, pushing forward democracy under the noses of the remnants of Franco’s fascist regime, and ultimately being recognized as head of state by the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978, when Spain’s constitution was overwhelmingly approved by 88 percent of the Spanish electorate. Those great majorities have now vanished from the Spanish political scene. In last month’s European parliamentary elections in Spain, the Popular Party’s and the Socialists’ votes combined did not add up to 50 percent for the first time since the transition. In the same elections in 2009, the big two had racked up 82 percent of the vote.

Many on the left, such as the leader of Podemos, a leftist party which came from nowhere to claim 8 percent in the European elections, are now calling for a new referendum on the monarchy. "This abdication will accelerate the decomposition of the political regime of 1978," Pablo Iglesias told the newspaper El País. "If the government believes that Felipe has the confidence of the people, it should be put to the test at the polls."

The monarchy isn’t blind to this change in the political winds. In a speech broadcast on Monday, King Juan Carlos observed that the country’s "economic crisis has left deep scars in the social fabric." He appeared to be acknowledging the fact that corruption and a lack of transparency can no longer be tolerated within any institution and that his son, a member of "a new generation which wishes to take charge," will have to do much better. But whether Felipe is the man that can quell a raucous political climate in Spain today is anything but assured.

As a prince, Felipe has studiously avoided controversy. He won’t be able to for long, however. One of the biggest concerns the new king will face is the Catalan government’s plan to hold a referendum on independence from Spain in the fall. The prince has learned to speak Catalan and will no doubt develop the royal household’s recent and tentative experiment in online transparency regarding public funds. The question remains, however, whether in such a fragmented political environment such niceties will suffice to keep the monarchy safe. In a poll published earlier this year by the right-of-center daily El Mundo, barely 50 percent o
f the respondents said they were pro-monarchy, while a larger majority said Juan Carlos ought to abdicate.

And so he has. But the old king’s gesture was not enough to stop thousands of indignados filling squares in Madrid, Barcelona, and other cities on Monday evening to demand a referendum on the future of the monarchy in Spain. The arduous but ultimately successful Spanish transition with which the reign of King Juan Carlos was once synonymous now seems to have reached the end of its cycle, with so many of the country’s democratic institutions lying exhausted. Is Felipe VI going to provide a breath of fresh air or is he just a fall guy?

James Badcock is editor of the English edition of El País.