The End of an Era


Roberto Cordón maintains that even though the reign of King Juan Carlos will be seen in a positive light and as a turning point in Spanish history, he leaves behind a mixed legacy

The announcement by King Juan Carlos on June 2 that he intended to abdicate, although speculated by some analysts, nonetheless took most observers by surprise. The Spanish monarchy, like the British one, was perceived to be a life-long commitment. Much has been written that the recent abdications in Belgium and the Netherlands had set the tone, but probably more relevant was the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. For Catholic and traditional Juan Carlos, it was a sign that it was possible to relinquish his God-given responsibility. The Spanish government was not even prepared for this possibility and had to scramble to pass an organic law that took effect 17 days later.

A Champion of Liberal Democracy

Juan Carlos’ decision process is symbolic of the interplay of tradition and modernity that characterised his reign. When he was chosen by Franco to become his successor, he was expected to follow in the steps of the Generalissimo as a defender of conservatism and a bulwark against liberal democracy. Franco even insisted in supervising Prince Juan Carlos’ education, much to the dismay of his father. Yet, after acceding to the throne after Franco’s death in 1975, Juan Carlos surprised everyone by becoming a staunch supporter of a parliamentary monarchy. In 1978, he promulgated a new constitution introducing or strengthening many democratic liberties that had been curtailed during Franco’s dictatorship. And if there was any doubt of his commitment to reform, in 1981 he took a firm stance against a coup attempted by conservative members of the military trying to restore the previous regime. This was perhaps Juan Carlos’ biggest triumph; even anti-monarchists recognised his role in safeguarding the transition process, leading to a dramatic rise in the popularity of the monarchy.

Spain’s Diplomat-in-Chief

In the following years, with the parliamentary government firmly established, Juan Carlos became Spain’s diplomat-in-chief. He was instrumental in promoting relations with other Western European countries, especially the monarchies, and eventually in brokering Spain’s accession to the European Community. He combined the prestige and social networks of his position with keen political instincts and strategies to help Spain regain a place of relevance. Nowhere was this more evident than in the former colonies of Latin America. Royal visits to the region were eagerly awaited by the public, and political leaders lined up for audiences with the King. Juan Carlos became Honorary President of the Organisation of Ibero-American States and regularly attended the yearly summits. With his support, the governments of Spain played an increasingly important role in promoting democracy in Latin America. Finally, he also helped to establish relations and foster commercial exchanges with the Arab monarchies. These were highly appreciated by Spanish companies, and business leaders became some of the strongest supporters of the monarchy.

Questioning the Monarchy’s Purpose and Utility

For all his promotion of reforms and diplomatic achievements, as the years went by, the public began to perceive the monarchy as decorative. There were more media reports about the weddings, expensive vacations and dalliances of the monarch’s family and less about his role as head of state. The purpose and usefulness of the monarchy was put in question. Juan Carlos came to be viewed as ‘out of touch’ and committed some notable faux-pas. In 2005, he threw a barb at Belgium’s beloved former King Baudouin I when asked whether he would assent to a bill legalising same-sex marriage, he said: “I’m the King of Spain, not of Belgium”. Catholic Baudouin had resigned his duties for a day in 1990, so that he did not have to sign a law legalising abortion. Two years later, during the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago de Chile, Juan Carlos told Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez to ‘shut up’ in exasperation that the latter was constantly interrupting the proceedings. He then stormed out of the room when Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega criticised some of Spain’s policies. Although this incident was acclaimed by anti-Chavista groups and was commented humorously, it was perceived by many Latin Americans as haughty and an expression of Spain’s post-colonial arrogance. More recently, the King received bad press after an ill-advised hunting trip to Botswana in the middle of the economic crisis, and allegations of financial impropriety against his youngest daughter Cristina and her husband Iñaki Urdangarín. Domestically, acceptance of the King among the country’s minority linguistic communities (Catalan, Basque, Galician), never high, reached a low point.

Restoring the Relevance of the Royal Family

Observers noted that the royal touch that served Juan Carlos so well in the early years of his reign to push for democratic reforms, while raising the prestige of a traditional monarchy, had become a handicap. Unlike Queen Elizabeth, who managed a successful turnaround after the death of Princess Diana, the Spanish monarchy seemed in forthright decline. Juan Carlos’ passing the baton to a younger generation (his words) is an attempt to restore the relevance of the royal family in modern Spain. Thus, although his reign will probably come to be seen in a positive light and a turning point in Spanish history, his legacy is mixed. The Spanish monarchy does not currently enjoy the levels of public affection of other European monarchies, such as the Netherlands or Sweden. After the abdication announcement, there were calls from many sectors to restore the Republic.

The Future of King Felipe VI

So, what does the future hold for King Felipe VI? On a personal level, he earned respect as a dutiful prince and his wife, Letizia Ortiz, a commoner, is very popular. Yet, celebrations of his ascension to the throne were kept at a minimum, partly in respect to the country’s economic travails, but partly also to avoid much attention. Felipe’s proclamation speech may give us some clues. It was less a celebratory speech, more an attempt to justify the continued relevance of the monarchy as a symbol of unity, even while effective power lies with parliament and government. He stressed his ‘personal conviction that the parliamentary monarchy can and should continue to render a fundamental service to Spain’ and further that ‘parliament will find in me a head of state loyal and ready to listen, to understand, to warn and to advice; and also to defend always the general interest.’ He also alluded to the challenge of keeping the country together by highlighting the cultural diversity of the country and his faith in ‘the unity of Spain (that is not uniformity), of which the Crown is the symbol.’ The first test will come in November when Catalans vote in a consultative referendum on their desire for independence.

In the speech, Felipe also referred to non-Castilian literary figures, including Alfonso Rodríguez Castelao, a well-known Galician writer. Interestingly, Castelao was an internationalist who hoped that the Iberian Peninsula would become a federation of independent Castile, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Portugal. If Felipe manages to negotiate the minefield of calls for separatism and become a driving symbol for economic recovery, he will carve his own place in the centuries-old monarchy. Otherwise, we may begin to discuss the emergence of a looser confederation of Iberian nations.

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Roberto Cordón

Roberto Cordón is Professor of Management and International Affairs at Franklin University Switzerland.

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