Jun 6 2014

Juan Carlos: Abdication and the Future of the Monarchy

Phoebe Amoroso examines the reactions of the public and the press to the news of Juan Carlos’s abdication.

On 2 June, King Juan Carlos of Spain announced his decision to abdicate. And so the furore began. Why did he give up the throne? And what is next for the monarchy?

Juan Carlos has suffered from declining popularity in recent years with an approval rating of only 41 per cent. In what can only be described as a PR disaster, in 2012 he was pictured next to an elephant he had shot dead. According to a columnist for Time.com, this was the beginning of the end. Juan Carlos had kept the trip hushed up, even from the present government, yet unsurprisingly the photograph emerged and scandal spread across the press.

The dead elephant saga demonstrated to many that the king was out of touch. Unemployment was 23% in Spain at that time, and the hunting trip was estimated by El País to have cost €44,000, twice the average annual salary in Spain. The word ‘abdication’ began to appear  in public discourse more and more frequently.

Beyond what was seen as insensitive behaviour during the worst economic crisis in years, killing elephants hardly went down well with the international community. Juan Carlos was an honorary president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the photos resulted in an almost unanimous vote to strip him of his title.

To make matters worse, his son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín has been questioned in connection with fraud allegations where he purportedly used public funds to organise sporting events.

Amid these allegations, some have described Juan Carlos’ abdication as a strategy that equates to quitting whilst he’s still ahead. However, many have celebrated Juan Carlos’s 39-year reign, pointing out that he was integral to the foundation of modern Spain.

Manuel Arias-Maldonado, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Malaga, argues that the abdication comes at the right time to add to ‘the feeling that Spain is seeing off the Transicion. New faces are needed for a new time. The king’s exit may thus be his last service to the democracy he helped to create, and whose flaws he did not entirely escape. However, his place in Spanish modern history should not be in jeopardy.’

Another firm proponent of this viewpoint is the historian and Hispanist, Paul Preston, Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. Talking to El Mundo, he argues that the scandals that had plagued the king in recent years will be unimportant over the course of time, emphasising that Juan Carlos was instrumental in the transition to democracy in Spain today.

Juan Carlos was personally selected by the dictator Francisco Franco to be his successor and was made Crown Prince of Spain between 1969 – 1975. However, on Franco’s death, he revealed himself to be allied to democratic principles. He quickly implemented reforms and replaced the pro-Francoist prime minister Carlos Arias Navarro with Adolfo Suárez, a former leader of the Movimiento Nacional. Through a careful strategy, Juan Carlos oversaw the transition and Spain held its first post-Franco democratic election on 15 June 1977.

What’s more, Juan Carlos is credited with foiling a military coup in 1981 by appearing in a TV broadcast in the early hours of the morning, appealing to people to support the principles of democracy and denounce those who bring force into politics.

Prof Preston sees Juan Carlos’s abdication as the result of profound meditation on the present and future of the monarchy in Spain. He believes that the struggle will be how his successor, his son Prince Felipe, will gain legitimacy in a difficult economic climate and without the heroism of Juan Carlos’s accession.  Moreover, the question of Catalonia remains a pressing concern.

Prince Felipe is fortunate, however, in that he comes to the throne with an approval rating of 66.4 per cent, much higher than his father. A columnist in the Guardian argues that Felipe,  former Olympic yachtsman, and his wife, Letizia Ortiz, a former television news anchor, ‘have cultivated an image of leading a relatively modest lifestyle’ which has aided to maintain their popularity. Many claim that Felipe is well-prepared for the role, and is better at giving speeches than his father, yet others believe he lacks the charisma to capture the public.

The favour of the public will indeed be something hard-won. A recent poll showed that just under half of the Spanish public want Spain to remain a constitutional monarchy. Following Juan Carlos’ announcement of his abdication, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand a referendum. An online petition calling for a referendum has attracted more than 113,000 signatures.

Internationally, the role of monarchs has also been questioned. Carlos’ decision makes him the third monarch to abdicate within the past couple of years, with Queen Beatrix of Beligum and Albert II of Belgium giving up their thrones April and July 2013 respectively. As this map in the Washington Post clearly shows, surviving monarchies are mainly symbolic. In the UK, eyes have turned towards Queen Elizabeth II but few believe that she will abdicate. During her Diamond Jubilee celebrations last year, she rededicated herself to the service of her country, and it is widely expected that she will become Britain’s longest reigning monarch next year.

As for Spain, some believe that support for the monarchy will increase during Felipe’s coronation. Juan Carlos’ role in history may be firmly cemented but his son’s future is much more uncertain. A New York Times columnist wrote that those who might vote to abolish the monarchy may be a vocal minority. Yet it’s hard to escape from an international trend where people are genuinely asking what exactly monarchies are for and whether we really need them.

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