The announcement of the abdication of King Juan Carlos led immediately to a fierce debate in Spain about the benefits of the monarchy and the need to change the political system. Tens of thousands of mostly young people descended on the streets with the red, yellow and purple flags of "La Republica", demanding a referendum on the state system: republic or monarchy.
As a young Dutch journalist in Spain covering "La Transicion" - the transition from the fascist Franco dictatorship to an emerging European-style democracy - I remember similar discussions in the mid-1970s. Juan Carlos was proclaimed king on the November 22, 1975, two days after Franco died. He was supposed to guarantee the legacy of Franco and continue the dictatorship with a young, monarchical face. The democratic opposition at the time called for free elections. Opposition forces were at first not convinced a true democracy would be possible with Juan Carlos on the throne. Pro-democracy demonstrators in the 1970s often carried republican flags because a democratic, monarchist Spain was unimaginable for them.
I remember writing a column about the futility of the monarchy-republic discussion in establishing a true democratic system. What does it matter if the colours of the flag are red-yellow-red or red-yellow-purple? Theoretically it may be more democratic to elect every five or six years your head of state and not to have a king or queen. But the crucial question about the political system is if it is truly democratic, if the voice of the people is heard and popular aspirations are fulfilled.
I received some scathing reactions on my column on the Spainish flag and some readers doubted my democratic credentials. The issue of the Spanish state system always evokes strong emotions. Spain already twice had a republican system: in 1873-1874 and from 1931-1939. Actually Juan Carlos' grandfather King Alfonso XIII went into exile in 1931 when the Second Republic was established.
The Second Republic was a progressive if not revolutionary state. It did away with the privileges of the nobility and the powerful Catholic clergy and stood for freedom of expression and association, women's rights and better conditions for workers and farmers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco defeated the Republic after a bloody civil war in 1936-1939, that claimed the lives of half a million people.
Franco's designated heir Juan Carlos did not turn out exactly what friends and foes had expected. In fact he understood Spain's need for change and modernisation and - once king - he played an extremely important role in the difficult transition from an authoritarian, backward system, relic of the past, to a future and Europe-oriented, parliamentary democracy.
Franco's designated heir Juan Carlos did not turn out exactly what friends and foes had expected. In fact he understood Spain's need for change and modernisation and - once king - he played an extremely important role in the difficult transition from an authoritarian, backward system, relic of the past, to a future and Europe-oriented, parliamentary democracy. Spain was no longer different, as it had been under Franco, but it became a "normal" European democratic country.
During those transitional years it was not at all obvious that democracy would prevail. Part of the army, military intelligence and hardcore nostalgics from the Franco-era conspired to thwart the democracy project. After I published a detailed article about some operations of the military intelligence and extreme-right undermining the nascent democracy, I was expelled from Spain in May 1979. My crime: "Offense of the Spanish Armed Forces". I had the doubtful honour of being the last foreign journalist to be expelled from Spain by the military, in one of the convulsions of the old regime.
In February 1981, one of the military men I mentioned in my article almost two years earlier, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, tried to take control of Spain by force and block the road to democracy. The image of the Guardia Civil or Civil Guard. brandishing a pistol in the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, became world famous. The coup d'etat failed, mainly because the king refused to cooperate with the putchists and stood firm in defence of democracy. This event became a watershed in Juan Carlos' career. If anybody still doubted the significance of the king in establishing democracy, he would now be convinced. With very few exceptions the king won over for good the Transicion generation.
However, 33 years after the failed putsch it is another generation's turn to take the lead. And there is a deep feeling of malaise, political mistrust and sincere desire to make a new beginning among the young. It is no coincidence that Spain's newest political party, very successful in the European elections, is called "Podemos: We can!" Many of the activists claim that Spain needs a new political system after 40 years of Franco dictatorship and 39 years of King Juan Carlos. A king who lately has lost a lot of his former popularity and credibility due to several scandals within the royal family.
A third republic?
So, why not have a Third Republic as a new beginning?
Traditional politicians and political parties are discredited in the eyes of many Spaniards. In the recent European elections, Spain's two main parties, the governing right-wing Partido Popular and the centre-left opposition party PSOE, failed to even attract half of the votes. This blow to the traditional two-party system, existing since the Transicion, is explained by allegations of corruption and incompetence of the traditional politicians. The social-democratic PSOE more or less imploded (it went back from 39 percent to 23 percent in five years) and PSOE leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba had to resign last week because of the poor results in the European elections.
Juan Carlos' successor Felipe will not only have to deal with the generational change, the call by many Spaniards for political renewal and the old guard's loss of political credibility, but also two other burning issues: the independence aspirations of the Basques and Catalans. November 9 is the proposed date for a referendum on the independence of Catalonia. The monarch as a symbol of Spain's unity will have a crucial but difficult role to facilitate a reasonable compromise and ultimately to keep the country together.
The call for a referendum about the future of the monarchy cannot be easily dismissed, even if such a plebiscite is not allowed under the current Spanish constitution. One could argue that the question about the flag's colours or the architecture of the state, monarchy or republic, is a dilemma about the form, not about democratic content. In the final analysis most democrats would prefer to live in monarchical Sweden rather than in republican Syria.
But with Juan Carlos' abdication, some fundamental questions are on the table: how to improve the democratic practice and restore confidence, how to respond to the aspirations of the Catalans, Basques and other groups, how to create a common discourse about the future of Spain and create a political system the majority of the people can believe in.
Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.