The King of Spain is facing a real-life Game of Thrones. As recently as two years ago, King Juan Carlos I was among the most popular heads of state in the world. But since then his country has sunk deeper and deeper into an economic crisis. At the same time, both the King and his family have become embroiled in scandals. Desperate over their country’s economy, Spaniards are directing their frustration at the royal family.
Will Spain be the first monarchy of the 21st century to fall? Thus far, voters in Europe have been responding to their economic woes by ousting political parties. But the abolition of a monarchy would mark the first time since the start of the crisis that a country actually changed its form of government.
For much of his reign, King Juan Carlos I, 75, was a respected and even beloved head of state. This was largely thanks to the role he played in establishing democracy in Spain after General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975. The King was also instrumental in stopping an attempted military coup in 1981. The night of the coup, he appeared live on television and said, “The Crown cannot tolerate in any form any act which tries to interfere with the constitution which has been approved by the Spanish people.”
Then, in 2008, the economic crisis hit Spain. The country’s real estate bubble burst, its banks had to be bailed out, and unemployment skyrocketed, currently standing at 27%. Youth unemployment is particularly high, and polls show that over half the country’s young people are considering moving abroad.
In 2011, Spanish voters ousted the left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and elected the right-wing Popular Party. Almost as soon as he took office, the new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, along with other leading members of his party became ensnared in accusations that they had taken kickbacks from construction companies. In February, 1 million people signed an online petition calling on Rajoy to resign.
Catalonia, a state in the northeast of Spain, has long had a separatist streak, which has grown stronger during the economic crisis. In November 2012, Catalonians elected a majority separatist government. A nonbinding referendum on independence from Spain is scheduled for 2014. While Catalonia is unlikely to secede any time soon, the referendum will undoubtedly cause unrest.
This seems like an ideal moment for a nonpolitical monarch who is above the fray to step in and unite the country. But the King is now seen as part of the problem. His popularity began to plummet in April 2012 when he was flown back from Botswana with a broken hip. The media revealed that he had fallen while enjoying a luxurious hunting trip shooting elephants. The trip was paid for by a Syrian businessman. Leaving the hospital after being operated on his hip, the King made an unprecedented apology, saying, “I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
But his words largely fell on deaf ears. Spaniards were particularly outraged by what they perceived as the King’s hypocrisy. Just weeks before jetting off to Botswana, he had appeared on television saying he could not sleep at night because he was so concerned about Spain’s high level of youth unemployment.
The media also reported that the King had been accompanied to Botswana by a woman named Corinna zu Sayn Wittgenstein. The King’s wife of over 50 years, Queen Sofia, had stayed home. In the past, the Spanish monarchy was treated with a deference that the British royal family could only dream about. The Spanish media had steadfastly refused to cover the frequent rumors of the King’s extramarital affairs. Today, it is open season.
The scandal over the hunting trip came a few months after the King’s son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, was named as a suspect in a corruption scandal. He is accused of using a non-profit group he ran to siphon millions of euros of public funds into offshore accounts. He allegedly traded on his royal cachet to win contracts for the group that were never fulfilled or that dramatically overcharged for services rendered. Urdangarin’s wife, Princess Christina, may be named a suspect as well. She was on the board of directors of the non-profit group.
The investigation is still ongoing. Protestors line up to boo Urdangarin when he arrives for his court appearances. He has been barred from attending any royal functions and deleted from the royal family’s website.
A less important scandal came last spring when the King’s 13-year-old grandson accidentally shot himself in the foot. Under Spanish law, he was too young to be handling a firearm. This helped reinforce the perception that the monarchy sees itself as above the law.
Even before the onset of the economic crisis, the monarchy’s mystique was diminished when the King’s oldest daughter, Princess Elena, divorced and his son, Crown Prince Felipe, married a divorcee. This made the royal family seem more like ordinary people and flew against their image as upholders of traditional Catholic values. As Walter Bagehot warned about the British monarchy in the Victorian era, “We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
The Spanish royal family is trying to repair its image. For the first time ever, they released their financial details. The King earns a salary of $385,000 on which he pays tax. He and Crown Prince Felipe have each volunteered to take a 7% pay cut. The King has also given up his yacht.
The royal family is trying to show they give “value for money” by making frequent public appearances. Hardly a day goes by without Crown Prince Felipe, Crown Princess Letizia, or Queen Sofia visiting a school or opening an art exhibit.
The King, however, has been largely absent from the public stage. He has been beset by health problems, undergoing several operations in the past year. On the rare occasions when he does appear in public, he walks with crutches, looking old and ill.
Many people are questioning his ability to continue carrying out his role. Currently, polls show that 85% of Spaniards feel he should abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Felipe. But then, 54% currently support abolishing the monarchy altogether. In April, thousands marched on Madrid to call for the monarchy’s abolition. An abdication might well prove the ideal occasion for the anti-monarchists to strike.
The nonviolent abolition of a monarchy has very little historical precedent. Thus, it would be watched with keen interest by many different groups. If one European monarchy falls and the economic crisis persists, maybe others will follow.
There would be a certain irony if a King who established democracy was dethroned via democratic process. Though in some ways, it would also be consistent with Spain’s long history of political upheaval. The country has only been a monarchy for 45 out of the past 90 years. Spain was a republic when Juan Carlos was born.
Considering how quickly Prime Minister Rajoy became ensnared in his own corruption scandal, Spaniards might do well to ask whether a constitutionally elected head of state is preferable to a hereditary one. Beyond that, it is sad to contemplate the twilight of a King whose early reign showed so much promise.
Emma Elliott Freire is an American writer living in England. King Juan Carlos I stamp image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.