Spain’s fragile monarchy grapples with ex-king’s woes

Spain's scandal-hit emeritus king Juan Carlos has moved abroad to try to protect image of the monarchy, a fragile institution which has seen its popularity drop but still enjoys strong protection under the constitution.

Spain's fragile monarchy grapples with ex-king's woes
Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP

With his Swiss bank accounts under investigation in Geneva and Madrid, the 82-year-old announced Monday he was leaving Spain to prevent his personal affairs from undermining his son King Felipe VI's reign — a move many analysts said may not be enough to revive the monarchy's fortunes.

State pollster CIS stopped measuring the popularity of the monarchy in 2015, after it dipped into negative figures following years of scandal.

But private polls show Spaniards are roughly equally split over whether their country should remain a monarchy or become a republic.

“The institution is in a very fragile situation,” Lluis Orriols, a political science lecturer at the University Carlos III of Madrid, told AFP. Just two decades ago the monarchy was Spain's most respected institution but it has ceased to generate consensus and instead “sparks ideological confrontations”, he added.

Older people and conservatives are more likely to back the monarchy, while younger people and leftists are more likely to oppose it, Orriols said.

Juan Carlos ex-King of Spain

Spain's former King Juan Carlos and his family | Gerard Julien / AFP

Lack of tradition

Unlike long-lived royal households elsewhere in Europe, Spain's monarchy “can't appeal to tradition” because the nation has centuries of practice at disposing of its monarchs, said Jaume Claret, a history professor at the Open University of Catalonia.

Two other former monarchs exiled themselves – Isabella II in the 19th century and Alfonso XIII in the 20th – while other reigns were disrupted by wars or replaced by short-lived republics and dictatorships.Most recently, General Francisco Franco re-established the monarchy after he took power following Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

Spain's monarchy also struggles to look useful or be a positive role model for citizens, two other pillars of modern European royal houses, Claret added.

Juan Carlos was lauded for helping Spain transition to democracy after Franco's death in 1975.

But a steady flow of embarrassing media stories about his past lifestyle and personal wealth have eroded his standing in recent years.

He abdicated in 2014, two years after he apologised to Spaniards for jetting off on an elephant-hunting trip in Africa with his mistress as Spain grappled with a financial crisis.

Juan Carlos' son King Felipe VI has since taken steps to improve the monarchy's image, such as imposing a “code of conduct” on royals.

Earlier this year he stripped his father of his allowance after new details of allegedly shady financial dealings emerged.

King Felipe IV with his father

King Felipe VI with his father ex-King Juan Carlos | Jaime Reina / AFP 

Armor-clad protection

While polls now show that a majority of Spaniards want a referendum on the future of the monarchy, Spain's 1978 constitution makes it virtually impossible for Spain to become a republic.

Any proposal to change Spain's parliamentary monarchy system would have to be approved by two-thirds of the lower house, and then parliament would have to be dissolved and fresh elections held.

Two-thirds of the new parliament would have to ratify the same motion before it would go before the Spanish public in a referendum.

The monarchy has “armor-clad” protection in the constitution, said Alberto Lardies, a journalist who has written several books about the Spanish monarchy. And Spain's two main parties, the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party, both back the monarchy, he added.

The institution is also “superprotected” by the media, which for decades cast Juan Carlos in a positive light and is now treating his son Felipe the same way, Lardies said.

Luis Placios Banuelos, a history professor at Madrid's  King Juan Carlos University, said those who oppose the monarchy “lack power and the ability to influence to change the situation”. But he added that that does not mean that the royal woes won't be harnessed by “populists and separatists”.

Far-left party Podemos, the junior partner in Spain's Socialist-led coalition government, and separatist and nationalist formations in Catalonia and the Basque Country have been highly critical of Juan Carlos.

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Madrid police end escaped camels’ night on the town

Eight camels and a llama took to the streets of Madrid overnight after escaping from a nearby circus, Spanish police said on Friday.

A camel in a zoo
A file photo of a camel in a zoo. Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

It was not immediately clear how the long-legged runaways managed to get out but Quiros Circus, which owns them, blamed sabotage by animal rights activists.

They were spotted at around 5:00 am wandering around the southern district of Carabranchel close to where the circus is currently based.

“Various camels and a llama escaped from a circus in Madrid overnight,” Spain’s national police wrote on Twitter, sharing images of eight two-humped camels and a llama hanging around a street corner.

“Police found them and took care of them so they could be taken back safe and sound,” they tweeted.

There was no word on whether the rogue revellers, who are known for spitting, put up any resistance when the police moved in to detain them.

Mati Munoz, one of the circus’ managers, expressed relief the furry fugitives — Bactrian camels who have two humps and thick shaggy coats – had been safely caught.

“Nothing happened, thank God,” he told AFP, saying the circus had filed a complaint after discovering the electric fence around the animals’ enclosure had been cut.

“We think (their escape) was due to an act of sabotage by animal rights groups who protest every year.”

Bactrian camels (camelus bactrianus) come from the rocky deserts of central and eastern Asia and have an extraordinary ability to survive in extreme conditions.

These days, the vast majority of them are domesticated.