On June 2 last, the people of Spain were shocked by a surprise announcement from King Juan Carlos I that he was abdicating. The timing of the announcement (news filtered out mid-morning on a Monday) gave an indication as to how minutely the choreography of the abdication had been planned. The king’s advisors wanted the word to spread slowly and for there to be the maximum gap possible between news of the abdication and the weekend, when any possible large-scale republican or anti-monarchist protests could be held. Nothing was being left to chance, which is quite understandable, because for almost forty years Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias — to give him his full name — has been more than just King of Spain and Head of State: he has been at the heart of the country, very often holding its disparate elements together.
For the last couple of weeks any mention of Juan Carlos (and it is fair to say there has been almost non-stop, saturation coverage) has been accompanied by plaudits along the lines of his being “a great friend of democracy”, “a staunch supporter of democracy” or “an upholder of democratic principles”. It is curious that a monarch, the embodiment of that most undemocratic of institutions, should be so lauded. We must delve into recent Spanish history to understand why this is the case. Up until 1975 Spain had been a fascist dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. As it began to dawn on the General that he would not live forever, he began the search for a successor. He could have chosen to anoint a member of his inner circle, but Franco’s gaze rested on the direct male descendant of King Alfonso XIII, who had been deposed by the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 — Franco was going to restore the Spanish monarchy.
Upon assuming the kingship, Juan Carlos surprised many by adopting a policy of steering Spain towards democracy. A period known as the Transition was entered whereby the structures of Franco’s dictatorship were carefully disassembled and replaced by typical Western democratic institutions. A new constitution was accepted by plebiscite in 1978 (this was the vast majority of the populace’s first time voting). From then on Spain has been a democracy, although at times one that appeared as fragile as a lone sapling in a winter gale. It is said that were it not for Juan Carlos’ untiring work in the shadows, keeping a reassuring hand on the military’s shoulders here and having a word in the ear of a disgruntled Francoist faction there, that the army or one of the general’s old henchmen might quickly have decided that they were tired of this Transition and democracy nonsense and that it was time to go back to the old, familiar ways. When a small coterie within the military did finally make its move in 1981’s coup, Juan Carlos was instrumental in ensuring that the tanks rolled back into barracks after less than a day with not a drop of blood being shed and the only damage done being a few dozen bullet holes in the ceiling of the parliament.
One of the main reasons the king is abdicating is that the reputation he built up during this period is at risk of being eroded by a number of scandals that have hit the royal family in recent years. To name but a few: his daughter, Elena, and her husband have divorced; his other daughter is involved in a financial scandal which may yet see her husband behind bars and herself on public trial and facing hefty fines if found guilty; the king broke his hip while on safari in Botswana shooting elephants (and was photographed doing so) and living it up (rumours circulated of an extra-marital affair being conducted) while his people were suffering from the deepest financial crisis the country has ever witnessed. The king and the royal family in general have never before been under as much scrutiny as they have been during the last number of years. In a country with 26% unemployment, high emigration and plummeting living standards the impression is that the royal family are not demonstrating an iota of solidarity with their subjects. Their galas, gowns and tiara lifestyle remains unaffected by the pain being suffered by the masses, with the result that the royal family has never been so unpopular and murmurings about a republic never so strident.
Therefore, the king is steps aside, allowing his tall, dark, handsome — and popular — son, Prince Felipe assume power, along with the beautiful Princess Letizia (a commoner and former newsreader) and their pair of cutesy young daughters. The royal family gets an instant rebranding, their popularity skyrockets and all is rosy in the garden once more. That’s the idea anyway. What the political mainstream in Spain fears more than anything is the possibility of mass support for a republic which could eventually lead to demands for a referendum. Even republicans in Spain fear the consequences of the citizens voting to establish a Third Republic. In this most divided of countries there are elements on the right who would never accept a republic and all it connotes. Memories of the chain of events the declaration of the Second Republic caused — huge levels of social unrest followed by a right-wing uprising followed by a bitter and bloody civil war followed by almost forty years of Franco’s dictatorship — are enough for many republicans to say “I despise the idea of a monarchy and all it entails, but we will have to put up with Spain being a constitutional monarchy for the sake of letting the sleeping dog of the far right lie”.
If the new king, Filipe VI, doesn’t blot his copybook in the same manner as his father it is likely the monarchy will survive long enough for him to hand over power to his eldest daughter, Leonor. If their downward spiral in the ratings continues into the next decade, however, the demands for a republic will only get stronger. Between this matter and calls for Catalonian and Basque independence it is going to prove to be a fascinating time for observers of Spanish constitutional law.