King Felipe VI boosts popularity of monarchy

A year after King Felipe VI took the throne on the abdication of Juan Carlos opinion polls show that he has strengthened the standing of a monarchy tainted by scandal.

King Felipe VI boosts popularity of monarchy
King Felipe has seen his approval rating soar since coming to the throne. Photo: Cristina Quicler / AFP

Felipe VI has strengthened the standing of Spain's monarchy in his first year as king, surprising the country by squaring up to scandal — but its future remains uncertain as a fresh political generation comes of age.

With new protest parties carving up the vote ahead of a general election due by the end of this year, royal-watchers say the 47-year old king is re-tuning the role of the monarchy.

He took the country by surprise last week when he faced his family's biggest scandal head-on, stripping the title Duchess of Palma from his sister Cristina, who has been called to stand trial for alleged tax evasion.

Spaniards' support for Spain's system of constitutional monarchy has risen to 61.5 percent, according to a survey by pollster Sigma Dos.

The poll was taken before the announcement about Cristina, and published in centre-right newspaper El Mundo on Monday.

The score was higher than the 60 percent approval level reached by Juan Carlos at the height of his popularity, which was driven down later by scandals.

Having launched a new palace code of conduct last year and published details of its spending, Felipe has also reached out to ordinary Spaniards and civil society.

“He knows that a monarchy has to be run in the street, in touch with people and real life,” Cesar de la Lama, a biographer of the current king's father.

In his first year Felipe has granted about 100 audiences, including to various non-governmental movements such as gay rights' groups.

“He has aimed his message much more at social groups, at the person in the street, than at the establishment,” said royal specialist author Fermin Urbiola.

– 'Improving democracy' –

A frail, tearful Juan Carlos gave up the crown in a ceremony at the palace on June 19 last year, hoping his heir would save the monarchy's image.

Juan Carlos had outraged Spaniards in 2012 by going elephant hunting in Botswana at the height of Spain's recession. Separately, Cristina was accused in a corruption probe targeting her husband.

The handover “caused a certain concern,” but “it went ahead without problems and the monarchy's approval rating has improved greatly”, said Jose Apezarena, author of several books about Felipe.

At the same time however, Spanish politics has changed rapidly, making the coming general election the most unpredictable in decades.   

Two major new opposition parties, the left-wing Podemos and centre-right Ciudadanos, are strong contenders, having gained a large share of the vote in regional elections last month against Spain's two old, established parties.

With leaders in their 30s, they represent a new generation of politicians born since Spain's transition to parliamentary democracy in the 1970s.

Juan Carlos, 77, is widely credited with aiding that transition. But the new forces are sceptical about the monarchy. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has proposed holding a referendum on abolishing it.

However more than 53 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Podemos voters said they had a good opinion of the king, in the poll published Monday.

“Spaniards have identified Felipe's father with the coming of democracy,” said journalist Ana Romero, another royal specialist.

“I think Felipe VI should get the new generation of Spaniards to identify him with improving democracy.”

In another study by the state polling institute CIS, the crown's popularity rating has ticked up to 4.3 points out of 10 from 3.7 a year ago.

That rating is still below the levels reached by the once-popular Juan Carlos before the scandals started in 2011, however.

“The monarchy as an institution has not yet regained the level of approval that it had for all those years,” said Romero.

“When the new Spain that emerges from the ballot boxes takes shape, we will see how Felipe VI fares,” she said. “He still has work to do.”

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FOCUS: Can Spain’s King restore faith in the monarchy?

Families are frequently a source of embarrassment, but the recent troubles caused by Spanish King Felipe VI's relatives belong to an entirely different realm.

FOCUS: Can Spain's King restore faith in the monarchy?

From expedited Covid vaccinations to tax offences and shady financial dealings by family members, Felipe has found himself in a royal mess sabotaging his efforts to clean up the image of Spain’s scandal-tainted monarchy.

It has in some ways left him tilting at windmills. Earlier controversies led to him cutting off his own father’s allowance, among other steps, but now more may be on the way, as he seeks to balance
family concerns with understandable outrage in Spain.

Last week his father, former King Juan Carlos, announced he had settled a debt of nearly 4.4 million euros ($5.3 million) with the Spanish tax office due on the value of previously undeclared private jet flights paid by a foundation based in Liechtenstein.

It was the second such tax settlement in less than three months for Juan Carlos, who went into self-exile in the United Arab Emirates in August as questions mounted over the origins of his fortune.

The former king is the target of three separate probes into his financial dealings.

And on Wednesday King Felipe’s older sisters Elena and Cristina acknowledged that they were vaccinated for the coronavirus while visiting their father in Abu Dhabi, sidestepping the immunisation queue in Spain.

The king’s spokesman stressed his sisters, just like his father, were no longer officially part of the monarchy and he was therefore not responsible for their actions.

‘Protect monarchy’

“He takes it badly, logically…because like everyone else, he has a heart” but “his role is to protect the monarchy from the storm,” journalist Jose Apezarena, the author of several books on Felipe, told AFP.

“It is clear to him that if he has to choose between the family and the monarchy, he will choose the monarchy.”

After Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 against a backdrop of scandals over his finances and love life, Felipe VI ascended the throne with the goal of restoring the monarchy’s prestige.

He promptly ordered an audit of the royal household’s accounts and issued a “code of conduct” for its members.

The following year he stripped the title of duchess from his sister Cristina who was implicated along with her husband Inaki Urdangarin in a wide-ranging case of embezzlement of public funds.

The couple stood trial in 2017. While the court acquitted Cristina, her husband is serving a jail sentence of five years and 10 months.

Last year Felipe renounced any future personal inheritance he might receive from his father, and stripped him of his annual allowance of nearly 200,000 Euros, after new details of his allegedly shady dealings emerged.

The king could be forced to go even further, according to Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“Felipe VI does not keep his family under control and their behaviour represents a huge reputation problem” for the monarchy, he said.

There will be further revelations regarding Juan Carlos’ questionable financial dealings in the coming years and Felipe will have “no alternative but to erect a clearer firewall”, such as asking the government to remove his title of king emeritus, he added.

PM under pressure

The royal scandals also put Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in an “uncomfortable situation”, said Simon.

Socialist ministers have in recent days repeatedly praised Felipe as “exemplary” even as they criticise his father’s behaviour, and the party backs the continuation of the monarchy.

But the scandals give fuel to the anti-monarchy arguments of far-left party Podemos, the junior partner in Sanchez’s minority coalition government.

Podemos, along with smaller Basque and Catalan separatist parties which help the government pass legislation in parliament, are calling for a serious debate over the future of the monarchy.

Sanchez in December referred vaguely to a “road map” to renew the Crown “in terms of transparency and exemplarity”.

If a debate over the monarchy’s future were to open it would lead to “the fracture of the majority supporting the government”, said Simon.