Adrian Shubert is a professor of European history at York University.
King Juan Carlos of Spain, who came to the throne in November, 1975, has abdicated.
On Feb. 23, 1981, a group of armed police stormed into Spain’s parliament while it was voting on a new government and took the deputies hostage. At the same time, tanks were advancing on Valencia. Rumours that far right gangs had compiled hit lists led leftist activists to burn their papers.
It was only six years after the death of Francisco Franco and Spain’s young democracy, the product of a transition in which the king had played an important role, had not yet been fully consolidated. I was living in Oviedo, in northern Spain, and I spent many hours huddled around the television set with my friends; the question on everyone’s mind was, “What would the king do?”. The answer finally came in the early hours of the morning. King Juan Carlos, dressed in military uniform, told the police and the army to stand down. The next day, the crisis was over.
More than anything else, these events established the popularity of the king and led him to being identified with democracy itself. For years, it was common to hear Spaniards say that they were not monarchists but that they were “Juancarlists”.
The monarchy was long the most popular public institution in Spain but in recent years, and especially since the onset of the economic crisis, its popularity, and that of Juan Carlos himself, has plummeted. Last February, one television network even broadcast a “mockumentary” which claimed that the attempted coup in 1981 was actually planned by leading politicians, who hired a movie director to put it together, in order to bolster the prestige of the monarchy. The program attracted almost 25 per cent of the national audience.
Much of this has been self-inflicted. The king has acted irresponsibly, most notoriously when he went on a safari to Botswana with his mistress while Spaniards were being lashed by recession, austerity and unemployment. The husband of his younger daughter, Cristina, has been investigated for misuse of public funds and she herself has twice been called for questioning by the prosecutor.
The monarchy’s problems are also connected to the loss of respect for all public institutions in Spain. The two parties that have dominated the country’s politics for decades, the Socialist Party and the Popular Party, not only have been incapable of providing an effective response to the economic crisis, which has produced a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 per cent, they are also perceived as enclosed and self-perpetuating castes removed from the pressing concerns of ordinary Spaniards. The surprisingly strong result of the three-month-old party Podemos in last week’s European elections is testament to this growing frustration. The crisis also led the long-simmering question of Catalonia’s place in the country to boil over, so that independence is now on the agenda and will be tested in an election there in November. All of this has led to increasing support for the monarchy to be replaced by a republic.
There have long been calls for Juan Carlos to abdicate, and why he should have decided to do so now is unclear. What is clear is that his surprise announcement is an attempt to restore the prestige of the monarchy. The new king, his 46-year-old son, Felipe, has not been touched by the scandals that have hit his father and sister, and opinion polls have shown that his personal popularity has risen even while that of the monarchy itself has fallen. (Felipe has a Canadian connection, having spent a year studying at Lakefield College School in Lakefield, Ont.) He inherits a daunting challenge: beyond the kind of leadership expected of any head of state, he must defend the legitimacy of the crown he will wear.
When he came to the throne, Juan Carlos said that his goal was to be king “of all the Spaniards.” In his television address announcing his abdication, he said that he had sought to help make Spain a modern democracy in which the citizens were the protagonists of its public life. Only hours after the announcement of the abdication there were demonstrations across the country demanding a referendum on whether Spain should become a republic. It would be a highly ironic legacy if those very citizens the king mentioned eventually decided that they did not want a monarch at all.