As he prepares to step down after 39 years on the throne, Spain’s King Juan Carlos leaves behind a legacy that may be hard to top for his soft-spoken successor, Crown Prince Felipe.
The 76-year-old king is better known these days for hunting elephants in Africa, his alleged womanising and telling the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to “shut up” at a summit in Chile in 2007. But back in the 1970s and early 1980s, he was a modernising, democratising dynamo who thwarted a dangerous military coup.
Despite the spate of corruption scandals that have plagued the royal family in recent years, King Juan Carlos’ legacy is likely to be buoyed by his achievements in the early years of his reign. Even Spaniards who are not fans of the monarchy will readily concede that Juan Carlos was a “good diplomat“, who put Spain on the world stage and has repeatedly played the role of troubleshooter in the country’s turbulent internal politics.
Osman Rifat Ibrahim, a resident of Madrid and chairman of the Royal Mohamed Ali Institute, believes Juan Carlos will go down in history as “the man who managed to heal the wounds and unite Spaniards in the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy”.
“[Juan Carlos] did save that democracy when some elements attempted to stop that transition, and he gave the world an image of Spain of modernism and progress. In the long run, that is what counts,” he said.
Juan Carlos ascended the throne in 1975, two days after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The young aristocrat, born in exile in Italy and educated in Portugal, had been handpicked by the right-wing dictator and groomed to succeed him. Among Juan Carlos’ first significant achievements as king was to win the support of the political left – the socialists and communists – for the newly restored monarchy.
Felipe's challenge will be similar to that of his father in trying to keep the country united and regain the confidence of Spaniards.
But Miguel-Anxo Murado, author of The Invention of the Past: Truth and Fiction in Spain’s History, said the king’s achievements may be less “meaningful” for those who were not around at the time.
“There have been critical revisions of his role in the 1970s transition,” Murado explained. “Most people would not dispute his legacy and give him credit for it. He did lead the country from a dictatorship to a democracy and later on, he was instrumental in curbing a dangerous military coup in 1981. But those things are less meaningful for the younger generations who didn’t experience them.”
According to Cote Villar, a 36-year-old journalist for the Spanish daily El Mundo, the generation born after the death of Franco – about 60 percent of the population today – simply did not experience the “best years of Juan Carlos’ reign”.
Because they witnessed a decline in the monarchy’s prestige due to a succession of scandals, she explained, younger Spaniards “cannot appreciate what the king meant for Spanish democracy, and the negative has diluted the positive points over time”.
Like father, like son?
When 45-year-old Crown Prince Felipe ascends to the throne, he will face a very different Spain from the one his father was left with. Forty years ago, Spain was emerging from over three decades of dictatorial rule. Despite the repression, Franco’s economic policies and rapid industrialisation had improved the country’s economy.
Today, although the outgoing monarch said his son has the “maturity and preparation to be king”, Felipe will reign over a country mired in grave political and socio-economic problems. Emboldened secessionist movements in the Basque and Catalonian regions are gaining momentum. And more than 26 percent of Spaniards are unemployed – that’s nearly six million people. An EU official has said it may take 10 years to fix the country’s economy.
Jokes are already making the rounds of Spanish social media sites, one showing Felipe leaving the unemployment queue, and exclaiming: “Who says you can’t get a job at 45?”
Felipe has been dismissed by his detractors as a lightweight and as “out of touch” with the nation, questioning what a pampered young royal can do for the country at a time of serious political and economic crises.
“Spain today is accustomed to democracy and is much more advanced than the one his father found in 1975,” said Ibrahim, who has met Felipe. “Felipe’s challenge will be similar to that of his father in trying to keep the country united and regain the confidence of Spaniards.”
Murado concurred, highlighting the “severe crisis of trust in the country’s institutions – not just the monarchy”.
“Although Felipe won’t be the one making decisions on these matters, he will suffer the consequences if anything goes wrong.”
The queen and the princess
Juan Carlos’ wife, Queen Sofia, has earned the respect of the Spanish people, partly for stoically enduring her husband’s rumoured extramarital affairs. Most agree that the former Greek princess has been instrumental in redeeming the family’s image time and time again with her trademark quiet dignity.
The Crown Prince is often described as aloof… He is discreet, soft-spoken. He has not been under the spotlight and is not that well-known by the public. But those are things that favour him greatly now.
However, her son’s wife, Princess Letizia, a former anchorwoman and divorcee, has been criticised for her extravagance and lack of respect for tradition. Some have also remarked upon her reluctance to take up humanitarian issues, and focusing instead on sartorial matters.
Not unlike her sisters-in-law, the chic princess has been implicated in scandals of her own. In 2013, an unauthorised biography – Adios Princesa, penned by Letizia’s cousin – alleged that the princess had an abortion before marrying the prince. The alleged abortion would have taken place at a time when terminations were still illegal in Spain.
Last year, the princess was also panned in local media for her alleged “sour character” and addiction to plastic surgery.
Murado said most of the criticisms against Princess Letizia come from “old-fashioned monarchists who secretly loathe her for not being born an aristocrat”.
“She has probably made things worse by trying to please them by adhering strictly to the protocol. But she has in fact helped the Crown Prince improve his own communication and social skills, and has now a chance to be more natural and thus, more popular.”
The people doth protest
But, 40 years after the restoration, how popular is the monarchy in Spain?
Following news of the abdication on June 2, left-wing groups called for protests in support of a referendum on the future of the monarchy. Tens of thousands of people gathered in more than 60 Spanish towns and cities, with solidarity rallies held in 30 other cities across Europe and Latin America.
According to a recent poll in the Spanish daily El Mundo, just less than half (49.9 percent) of the population want Spain to remain a constitutional monarchy. Close to 70 percent of respondents in the same poll said the king was unable to restore the monarchy’s prestige – ironically, the prestige that Juan Carlos himself is said to have brought to the institution.
Murado conceded that support for the monarchy is low in Catalonia and the Basque Country, but that a referendum on the monarchy is unlikely to take place.
“There’s no longstanding monarchic tradition in Spain, like in the UK. And most people have a practical approach to the crown: They’re willing to accept it as long as it is exemplary. They see it as a burden even if it’s not really very expensive. It’s a matter of perception. People have become more demanding of it now, perhaps because of the economic crisis.”
In 2011, Juan Carlos revealed the yearly royal budget was about $11m. That’s a modest sum compared to the $1.4bn needed to maintain the family of US President Barack Obama, or the roughly $60m paid to the British royal family.
Still, observers say it would take a truly charismatic figure – akin to what Juan Carlos once was – to win back the favour of the people.
In terms of character, Murado pointed out that the Crown Prince is “very different from his father”.
“The Crown Prince is often described as aloof… He is discreet, soft-spoken. He has not been under the spotlight and is not that well-known by the public. But those are things that favour him greatly now. He is untainted by the scandals affecting other members of the royal family and that gives him a good start,” he said. “People want a king that is less flamboyant and more austere. In any case, Spaniards have seen so little of [Felipe] so far that he still has the potential to show charisma.”
Yet this lack of charisma, Villar believes, could be an advantage – and may even help him save the monarchy.
“Spain in the 21st century requires a professional king, one who is prepared and serious. Prince Felipe possesses these qualities. His style may be less natural, less folksy, but his reign will be based less on personal charm and more on communication and team strategies. For sure, it will be a less personalised form of reign.”