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Spain's King Juan Carlos meets Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Madrid, January 8, 2014. (J.J. Guillen/REUTERS)
Spain's King Juan Carlos meets Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Madrid, January 8, 2014. (J.J. Guillen/REUTERS)

Paul Waldie

Spain’s Juan Carlos vows to maintain embattled monarchy Add to ...

It is hard to imagine things getting much worse for Spain’s King Juan Carlos I.

Long revered as the saviour of Spanish democracy, the 76-year old monarch and his family have been beset by a series of scandals, the latest involving allegations of fraud and money laundering involving his daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, businessman Inaki Urdangarin. The crisis has gotten so bad the King’s future, and that of the monarchy, has been thrown into doubt.

A recent poll found that 62 per cent of Spaniards want the King to abdicate in favour of his son Prince Felipe. That’s up from 45 per cent last fall. Many people want to go further and abolish the monarchy altogether.

“The scandals involving the royal family and the lack of transparency and responsiveness to them, has undermined the figure of Juan Carlos to large sections of the population,” said Julian Casanova Ruiz, a professor of contemporary history at Spain’s University of Zaragoza. “Juan Carlos should abdicate. I do not know if that would mean the end of the monarchy or if Prince Felipe would be able to redirect the situation.”

It’s far cry from the late 1970s when Juan Carlos played a key role in reinstating democracy in Spain after the death of Francisco Franco, who ruled the country as a military dictator for more than 30 years. The King cemented his position as a defender of democracy in 1981 after fending off an attempted coup.

However, in recent years his reputation has been badly dented. He faced scathing criticism in 2012 for going on a luxury elephant-hunting safari in Africa while Spain struggled with soaring unemployment and a deep economic recession. It didn’t help his image that he broke his hip during the trip or that, at the time, he was honorary president of the Spanish chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, which promptly fired him. Then came an accident involving his teenaged grandson, who shot himself in the foot with a shotgun, resulting in a police investigation.

But the most serious scandal has been the prolonged investigation into irregularities at a real-estate company jointly owned by Princess Cristina and Mr. Urdangarin. This week an investigating magistrate filed a 227-page report in court alleging the couple used the company to siphon off $8.5-million in public funds and spend it on a host of personal expenses, including renovating their mansion in Barcelona and paying for holidays, restaurant meals, clothing, soccer tickets and gifts such as Harry Potter books. Court officials have also seized property belonging to the Princess and her husband to cover a possible fine.

The Princess, who is seventh in line to the throne, has not been charged and has insisted through her lawyers that she has done nothing wrong. Mr. Urdangarin, who has been charged, also denies any wrongdoing.

The investigating magistrate, Jose Castro, has gone after the Princess before, but failed to make anything stick. This time, he has come to court armed with far more details and the co-operation of Mr. Urdangarin’s former business partner, Diego Torres, who also faces charges. Mr. Torres has turned on the royals and offered up a stack of internal e-mails that he alleges implicate the Princess in the scam.

Things will only get worse for the royal family. Princess Cristina will have to answer questions about the allegations in court in March and she faces the prospect of being the first senior royal to go on trial since the restoration of democracy.

Fernando Jimenez, a political science professor at the University of Murica in Spain, said the image of the royals “has deteriorated very rapidly in the last three years.

“The deep economic crisis has pushed Spaniards to reject very harshly all corrupt episodes, particularly those coming from people who should behave in exemplary fashion,” he said. He added that the King’s age and recent health problems mean that he might abdicate.

For now, though, Juan Carlos is showing no sign that he wants to resign. On Christmas Eve, he told the country: “I want to express to you, as King of Spain, my determination to continue the faithful fulfilment of the mandate and the powers attributed to me.”

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