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Royal handover

Guy Hedgecoe
June 3, 2014

The abdication of King Juan Carlos means Prince Felipe will take the throne. The monarchy hopes to recover the credibility it has lost in recent years, but the new king faces serious challenges in doing so.

Juan Carlos and Felipe (Foto: Susana Vera/REUTERS)
Crown Prince Felipe (l) will face public dissatisfaction with the monarchyImage: Reuters

King Juan Carlos's announcement on Monday (02.06.2014) of his abdication closes a major chapter of Spanish history, during which the country has emerged from a repressive dictatorship to become a respected modern democracy and force on the international stage.

The Spanish royal household hopes that the crowning of the new king, Prince Felipe, will help pull it out of a crisis that has seen the monarchy’s popularity plummet to its lowest levels in the democratic era. The king's optimistic tone as he announced his decision in a televised address on Monday reflected this belief.

"A new generation wants a prominent role, in the same way that the generation to which I belonged wanted that," he said. "Today, a younger generation deserves to move to the front line in order to confront with renewed intensity and dedication the challenges of tomorrow."

However, the scale of the task facing the 46-year-old Felipe was made clear just hours after the abdication was announced, as demonstrations against the monarchy erupted in towns and cities across Spain. The protesters demanded a referendum on the abolition of the institution.

A democratic icon

Juan Carlos faced even greater turmoil than this when he took the throne in 1975, following the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, who had ruled since the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. The young king had been Franco's protégé, and had been groomed to maintain the repressive status quo. "Juan Carlos the Brief" was one nickname he earned, as many predicted a weak, short-lived reign.

Juan Carlos (Foto: Spanish National Television/REUTERS)
Juan Carlos announced his abdication in a televised addressImage: Reuters/Spanish National Television

But instead, Juan Carlos set about building the foundations for democracy, bringing moderates from the Franco regime together with figures on the left. They built a consensus on how Spain could leave the past behind and build a successful future, fired by a statesmanlike ambition that became known as "the spirit of the transition." With Juan Carlos the figurehead of the new Spain, he solidified his democratic credentials in 1981, when his decisive actions helped prevent a coup attempt by Civil Guard officers who were aiming for a return to authoritarianism.

For much of the ensuing three decades, Juan Carlos would enjoy Spaniards’ admiration and support because of his early commitment to democracy. But as the recent economic crisis took hold, Spaniards started to scrutinize their public figures more closely - the king included. When it emerged he had taken a lavish elephant-hunting holiday in Botswana in 2012, while the Spanish economy was being pummeled by the markets, he faced a fierce backlash from the media, politicians and ordinary Spaniards.

Meanwhile, his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, was investigated for embezzling public money from a charity he once headed, in a scandal which has also threatened to sully the reputation of Princess Cristina.

The unpopular elite

In a few short years, therefore, the monarchy’s image has been severely tarnished. Once admired as glamorous yet down-to-earth, the royals are now viewed by many Spaniards as part of the unpopular ruling elite, along with politicians and bankers.

Mourners in Spain in 2004
The royal family attended a ceremony for victims of the 2004 terrorist strikeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"When you have an economic crisis, trust in public institutions - and politicians and the king and royal family are part of these institutions - decreases," said sociologist Josep Lobera of Madrid’s Autonoma University.

Spain's economy is now slowly recovering, but the image of many of its institutions is still suffering. In the recent EU elections, the governing Popular Party (PP) and the main opposition Socialists performed extremely poorly, reflecting widespread disenchantment with the bi-party politics that have dominated Spain in the democratic era.

The big success story of the elections was Podemos, a new political party with a tiny budget and little party machinery behind it, but whose leftist non-traditional platform scooped 1.2 million votes.

After the abdication announcement, the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, backed calls for a referendum on the monarchy’s future. "We Spaniards have the right to decide our future; that's why we want to vote," he said.

Catalan separatism

Meanwhile, separatists in the northeastern region of Catalonia also seized on the abdication - in their case, as an opportunity to reiterate their determination to break away from Spain following a referendum on the issue in November.

Therefore, while the monarchy is hoping to start anew with King Felipe, many Spaniards want an even more drastic overhaul of their institutions.

The performance of the economy in the coming months is likely to have a bearing on the success of the new king, as he seeks to rebuild Spaniards’ respect for their royals. With the government promising sustained growth, that will be good news for Felipe, who already enjoys relatively good poll numbers and a clean image. However, he may also find he has to prove himself to his subjects, as his father once did over three decades ago, before they accept him.