King Juan Carlos to stage comeback for birthday celebrations

Spain's former king Juan Carlos I, who turns 80 on Friday, makes a public comeback with his son Felipe VI at the weekend after complaining bitterly of being left on the sidelines.

King Juan Carlos to stage comeback for birthday celebrations
King Juan Carlos at a bullfight in Seville in 2016. Photo: AFP

The show of unity comes at a trying time for Spain after its wealthy Catalan region attempted to break away, and where 47 percent of voters want to live in an independent, monarchy-free republic.

Credited for leading Spain to democracy after decades of dictatorship, Juan Carlos will appear at a military ceremony Saturday in Madrid alongside Felipe, who replaced him in June 2014 after a tearful abdication following several royal scandals.

“Father and son haven't been seen together at an institutional event for seven months,” says Ana Romero, author of a book on the latter years of Juan Carlos's reign.

Left on sidelines

Widely lauded for his negotiating skills, political acumen and role in defusing an attempted coup in 1981, Juan Carlos fell from grace during Spain's economic crisis as his lavish lifestyle drew anger.

Adding fuel to fire, his youngest daughter Princess Cristina and her husband Iñaki Urdangarin were embroiled in a corruption and tax fraud investigation, with the latter since found guilty of siphoning off millions to fund a lavish lifestyle. Cristina was acquitted.   

When he took the throne, Felipe VI, 49, took his distances in a bid to restore the image of the monarchy.

The two Kings together on the balcony of the Royal Palace on the day of King Felipe's coronation in June 2014. Photo: AFP

In June, Juan Carlos was markedly absent from an event marking 40 years since the first democratic elections after Francisco Franco's dictatorship.   

Jose Apezarena, Felipe VI's biographer, says the explanation given at the time was that he didn't show up “so as not to outshine his son.”   

But “people close to him conveyed his unease, he was angry at having been excluded.”

But that “really hurt” the man who reigned 38 years because “it was thanks to him that there was an exemplary transition from a dictatorship to a full democracy,” adds Jaime Penafiel, a royal affairs journalist.

So “he made it known that if they humiliated him again, he would go celebrate his 80th abroad.”

Reluctant abdication

So it is that on Saturday, Juan Carlos and his wife Sofia will accompany Felipe VI and Queen Letizia to a ceremony held annually to mark the start of the year for the military.

Four years ago, that same ceremony had been a torture for Juan Carlos, physically weakened after health issues and tainted by scandals.   

“He made mistakes in his speech, lost track of what he was saying, offering a pathetic spectacle,” says Apezarena.   

That's when he asked for preparations to be made for his abdication, he adds.

Later that year in June, he stepped down in favour of his son and became “king emeritus,” a title he hates according to the press.   

READ MORE: King Juan Carlos led 'double life' with lover

For Penafiel, “it wasn't what he wanted as he had repeatedly said he would be king until he died.”

He would have preferred the fate of King Harald V of Norway, who is still in power and in May celebrated his 80th birthday with a big bash attended by other European royals.

Low-key celebrations

So why isn't Spain doing that for Juan Carlos?   

“He isn't king anymore, and the Spanish monarchy has more of a tradition of austerity than the northerners,” says Apezarena.   

King Juan Carlos I of Spain  and Queen Sophia attend the funeral ceremony for the late King Michael I of Romania in December. Photo: AFP

Celebrations are planned to mark his birthday and that of Sofia this year, but “lower key,” he adds.

At his family birthday meal on Friday, Princess Cristina and Urdangarin are expected to be conspicuously absent.   

“The more they are kept away, the better it is” for the royals, says Apezarena.

And while Juan Carlos was once criticised for his lavish lifestyle — going on a luxury elephant hunt in Botswana at the height of the economic crisis, for instance — he is still widely admired for his role in Spain's recent democratic history.

With the passing of time, the risk of him outshining his son is dwindling, says Apezarena — even if Juan Carlos was named world sailing champion in September aged 79.


‘Alone and bored’: A year after exile, legal woes haunt Spain’s ex-king

A year after Spain's former King Juan Carlos went into self-imposed exile in the face of mounting questions over his finances, he remains under a cloud of suspicion that complicates his return home.

'Alone and bored': A year after exile, legal woes haunt Spain's ex-king
Juan Carlos I's close ties with Gulf leaders have allowed him to live in opulent exile in Abu Dhabi for a year. Photo: KARIM SAHIB / AFP

He announced on August 3, 2020 he was moving abroad to prevent his personal affairs from undermining his son King Felipe VI’s reign and sullying the monarchy.

But his choice of new home — the United Arab Emirates, where some of his business affairs triggered the scandals that tainted his reputation in the first place — only raised Spaniards’ eyebrows further.

Juan Carlos has told his son that he would like to return to Spain “but he won’t come back without the approval” of the royal household, said Jose Apezarena, the author of several books on Felipe.

And the position of the royals is that “until his legal problems end, he should not return”, Apezarena told AFP.

The 83-year-old former king is the target of three separate investigations over his financial dealings, including those linked to a high-speed rail contract in Saudi Arabia that was awarded to a Spanish consortium.

Prosecutors in Spain and Switzerland are looking into suspicions he received kickbacks for facilitating the deal.

The suspicions centre on $100 million (€85 million) that Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah allegedly deposited in 2008 into a Swiss bank account to which Juan Carlos had access.

The other two investigations concern the alleged existence of a trust fund in Jersey linked to Juan Carlos and the undeclared use of credit cards linked to accounts not registered in his name, a possible money-laundering offence.

‘Very bored’

Spanish monarchs have immunity during their reign but Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 following a series of health problems and embarrassing revelations about his personal life, leaving himself vulnerable to prosecution.

While he has not been charged with any crime, the probes have tainted his reputation as a leader of Spain’s democratic transition following the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Outside of the Royal Palace in central Madrid, opinions were divided.

“He is being judged without any evidence, he should be able to come home if that’s what he wants,” said Pura Fernandez, 46, a bank worker.

But delivery rider Angel Galan, 27, was less sympathetic.

“He may have done some great things for Spain but if he committed irregularities I am not sad that he is gone,” he said.

While in exile, Juan Carlos has twice settled tax debts with Spanish authorities for a total of more than €5 million.

But he has otherwise kept a low profile at the villa on the island of Nurai off the coast of Abu Dhabi where he now lives.

“He is alone and very bored,” said Apezarena.


‘Not normal’

When reports emerged in February that Juan Carlos was in poor heath, the former monarch told online Spanish daily OKDiario he was “well, exercising two hours daily” in his only comments to the media since moving abroad.

Abel Hernández, a journalist and expert on the monarchy, said he believes Juan Carlos will return to Spain by the end of the year.

“He has not been charged with anything and has regularised his situation with the tax office. It does not seem normal that he remains outside of the country,” Hernández told AFP.

The scandals swirling around Juan Carlos have provided ammunition for those wanting to abolish the monarchy.

The far-left party Podemos, which is the junior partner in Spain’s coalition government, has called for a parliamentary investigation into Juan Carlos’s wealth.

Felipe, meanwhile, has sought to distance himself from his father.

Last year the king renounced his inheritance from Juan Carlos, and stripped the ex-monarch of his palace allowance after new details of his allegedly shady dealings emerged.

Polls show support for the monarchy has inched up since Juan Carlos moved abroad although a survey published Sunday in conservative daily La Razon found 42.9 percent of Spaniards feel Juan Carlos’s legal woes were hurting Felipe’s reign.