Is the Spanish public suffering from monarchy fatigue?

Political parties agree that the institution is in desperate need for change But exactly how should these reforms take shape?

Prince Felipe and his father, King Juan Carlos, during a military parade.
Prince Felipe and his father, King Juan Carlos, during a military parade. Uly Martín

Fatigue suffered by materials with the passing of time is one of the basic principles of engineering. But in the case of Spain's monarchy, it's not just 35 years of continual use since its restoration that explains the institution's noteworthy wear and tear. The recent subpoenaing of Princess Cristina is just the latest in a series of scandals that has speeded up the fatigue process, prompting headlines in the foreign media along the lines of "Spanish crown in jeopardy."

Discussion of the Crown is no longer taboo, and the institution has come in for stinging criticism in the media, while support for the monarchy has fallen among the general public, according to a wide range of opinion polls. The main political parties - who until recently refused to mention the king in anything but the most reverential terms - are uncertain how to deal with a fast-changing situation, while politely expressing the need for a review of some aspects of the institution; indeed, for the first time there is near-unanimity across the political spectrum on the need for change. The only question is how much, and of what type. Some believe that a few legal touches about the way the Royal Household works should be sufficient, while others are openly talking about the need for King Juan Carlos to step down in favor of his son, Prince Felipe. Others, meanwhile, are arguing that Spain needs to get rid of the monarchy altogether.

There is almost unanimity across the political spectrum on the need for change

Among those who are calling for the first of these ideas - a few legal changes - is the Popular Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who, after initially rejecting the idea, has accepted that the affairs of the Royal Household need to be subject to some kind of public scrutiny.

Abdication has been discussed by the country's leading politicians, among them some from the PP, who say that such an event would need to be accompanied by reforms to the institution. As yet, it is a small minority in Congress that is openly arguing for the creation of a republic, and that minority is unlikely to ever have its calls approved by the massed ranks of the Socialist Party and the PP, which both defend the Crown as the best guarantee of institutional and political stability - albeit with some changes to its regulation and status.

The king's 2012 elephant-hunting trip to Botswana, the rumors about his relationship with Monaco-based businesswoman Corrinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, and above all the judicial investigation into the Nóos corruption case, involving alleged wrongdoing by the king's son-in-law, have all contributed to fatigue among the public. The economic crisis and growing public mistrust toward the institutions of the state have all brought greater attention to bear on the monarchy. The important thing is that in recent years, the veil of silence surrounding the royal family has been lifted.

Iñaki Urdangarin and his wife Princess Cristina, both of whom have been dragged into a corruption scandal.
Iñaki Urdangarin and his wife Princess Cristina, both of whom have been dragged into a corruption scandal.EFE

"We are aware of the deterioration of the public image of our institutions, including the Crown, over recent years," says a spokesman for the Royal Household. "All the opinion polls show this negative trend, and of course we are very concerned, and we are trying to respond."

When the monarchy was reinstalled in Spain in 1975, its credibility rested exclusively on the figures of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía, and public support was based on how they behaved. According to United Left deputy Gaspar Llamazares, the problem now lies in what was once considered the key virtue of the arrangement: Juan Carlos himself.

"The king was the most valuable asset that the Crown had, but now that is no longer the case," says the former leader of the leftist bloc. "He has become a liability, because his image has deteriorated and his prestige is rapidly declining."

Abdication has been discussed by the country's leading politicians

As the royal family has grown over the years, so has the potential for making mistakes. Jaime de Marichalar, the wayward former husband of Princess Elena, along with Iñaki Urdangarin and Princess Cristina, no longer make appearances in official photos. But former Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero believes that the monarchy has consolidated its position in Spanish society.

"The great democracies, the advanced democratic societies, are those that have known how to consolidate their institutions, those that are the most relevant for democracy," Zapatero told EL PAÍS. "And in Spain, the monarchy is that institution. In our recent collective memories we still have the role of the king in bringing about reconciliation, in helping the Transition, in the writing and approval of a Constitution that guarantees the principles of democracy, in helping to save that democracy from a military coup. And then there is the appreciation of the king and the international community's identification of him with Spain," says Zapatero.

"For that reason, I believe that Spanish parliamentary democracy is tied to the monarchy, and specifically with the career of Juan Carlos I; similarly the monarchy is an integral part of Spanish democracy, in its origins, in the basis for its legitimacy, and in its respective future development. We also know that these democracies are those that serve open societies, societies that are able to criticize themselves, and that are prepared to change and improve. This task, that of improving democracy and our institutions, must be equally present in our collective debate - although it no longer behooves me to participate in that from a position of leadership," says the former prime minister.

But King Juan Carlos' role in overcoming the attempted coup of February 1982, and his contribution to moving Spain toward democracy, are no longer that important for the majority of Spaniards, according to sociologist Belén Barreiro, the former president of the Center for Sociological Investigation (CIS). Barreiro explains that there are now a number of generations that have been born in a democratic Spain, something they take for granted. "The monarchy is a non-democratic institution, and that is why it needs reinforcing through action. The problem is that it has not been reinforced recently, and it is losing support among young people because the king hasn't done anything important for a long time."

The king has nothing left to give, and he needs to hand over power"

For the younger generation, the freshest image of the king is his televised apology after the Botswana incident: "I'm very sorry, I made a mistake and it won't happen again," he told the cameras after he injured himself on an elephant-hunting trip. There is also the image of the mysterious Corinna, or the never-ending saga of Iñaki Urdangarin. Barreiro says that "the king has nothing left to give, and what needs to be done now is for him to prepare to hand over power. He will leave us all with fond memories, but he runs the risk of overstaying his welcome." She says that Prince Felipe is popular, but that if he is to maintain his popularity the handover of power needs to be done transparently, "and must be accompanied by legal changes."

The king can still count on the support of the two main political parties, although they have their concerns. Both understand the demands of state, are pragmatic, and in some cases even believe in the monarchy.

"Very directly, I can refer to the experience of my relationship with the Crown while I was prime minister," says Zapatero. "And I want to be very clear: I always saw the king's commitment in terms of his responsibility to act as a factor toward integration, as well as his support for the institutions of democracy, specifically in supporting the government in the defense of the general interests of Spain. I don't know if this is usual for monarchs, but I can also say that I always felt his closeness, disposition, and personal encouragement at the most difficult times or in the face of serious challenges to our country. And I should add that I saw the same attitude in the prince."

The Socialist Party's grassroots support is overwhelmingly republican, but its leadership has always put the Constitution - and what it sees as common sense - first when it comes to defending the monarchy. Party leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba likes to say that it is the Socialist Party that keeps the monarchy in power. In other words, if the party were to change its position on the head of state, the monarchy would be in trouble. The conference it will hold in September to prepare its platform ahead of the elections in 2015 will not include any debate on the future of the monarchy or that of King Juan Carlos.

Nobody will come to our aid if we allow the spark of populism to be lit"

"We are not looking at changing the structure of the state, although some members with republican sympathies will put forward amendments that will make some discussion inevitable. But we won't be encouraging it," says Ramón Jáuregui, the Socialist politician tasked with organizing the conference. He says that the idea of a constitutional pact, with the monarchy as a guarantee of stability "is not the past, but the present, and it would not be a good idea to remove it."

In his opinion, the election of a head of state belonging to a political party would not guarantee stability and consensus, and much less at a time when voters are disaffected. "We must be careful not to open a door that we cannot shut," he adds. The Socialist Party balances its support for the monarchy with the need to listen to its republican grass roots. The party's youth wing wants to open a debate on establishing a republic, but so far has been unable to get the issue onto the party's annual conference agenda. The issue is a sensitive one: when Catalan Socialist Party leader Pere Navarro called recently for the king to abdicate, it created serious tensions within the party.

The PP has an even greater sense of responsibility for Spain's institutions. A member of the government says that the party is very much aware of the critical situation regarding the declining popularity of the monarchy, which has been made more critical by the fact that the king's poor health prevents him from acting as an ambassador or from taking part in official events. His diary is full of postponed official appointments.

This member of the government says that the Crown is a special institution, and that any changes to it must come from the king himself. He says that there is no question of dismantling the monarchy, among other reasons because this would have a negative impact on the country's international credibility, as well as requiring the temporary closure of Congress and a referendum, which he says would usher in a period of instability. These fears and panic about a debate on the monarchy prevented Zapatero from continuing with constitutional reform to eliminate the anachronism of male primogeniture, an idea that has since been shelved.

The Socialist Party's grassroots support is overwhelmingly republican

Abdication, says the same minister, is a decision that only the king himself can take - which isn't to say that many in the government wouldn't be against such a move. Article 57 of the Constitution foresees a law to regulate the succession, but the minister says that if the king wanted to abdicate, the two main parties would take about a week to approve the required legislation, as they did in 2011 with the constitutional reform required to impose the EU's demand on limiting the public deficit by law.

This balancing act between the king and the government requires extremely discreet management. For example, the king's speeches, which usually receive input from the prime minister's office, as was the case last Christmas. The job of maintaining the monarchy's stability falls to Benigno Pendás, director of the Center for Constitutional and Political Studies, run by the prime minister's office. "The Crown is the cornerstone of our constitutional system. It is a symbol of the unity and permanence of the state, but also the nation. The king exercises a function that is impossible to define in legal terms, but is vital in maintaining the political balance of our institutions. For those of us who believe in a constitutional Spain, the image of the highest office of state is the guarantee of a democracy that puts us in the only place possible for a civilized society in the 21st century. The monarchy as part of government is a success in countries as advanced as Sweden, Norway and Denmark, or in long-standing democracies such as the United Kingdom. Spanish society needs to express the maturity that has allowed us to overcome difficult times. Democracy has functioned in the Nóos case, and that democracy enshrines the presumption of innocence and in the right to a defense. The strength of our institutions, regardless of who heads them, is a sign of identity of a society able to overcome passing storms. The result is more than favorable. A success if we look back into a past plagued with exclusion, revenge and conflict," says Pendás.

He adds: "We need to be calm, and avoid helping interests that are often not in our favor. We all have a responsibility, because nobody will come to our aid if we allow the spark of populism to be lit."

Others, like Llamazares, say that a debate on the future of the monarchy is unavoidable. In his opinion, in the worst case scenario, change will be needed to "give transparency and bring secularism and republicanism to the institution, even if this seems a contradiction, and the application of Lampedusa's theory that things must change for them to remain the same."

Abdication, says one minister, is a decision that only the king himself can take

The question is whether it is possible to modernize or improve the image of the monarchy. This has already been tried with limited success: a less-than probing interview on the television last Christmas, a blog post by the king, complete with controversial comments about Catalonia, or the publishing of the Royal Household's income sources. Now new solutions are being sought.

A spokesman for the Royal Household says that the palace has already taken measures to do something about the king's declining popularity, such as the request to be included in the government's legislation aimed at increasing transparency in public life. Since then, there have been a number of meetings with the government. After looking at how other European monarchies have gone about improving transparency and accountability, an agreement has been reached, which will now be presented to Congress for approval. Sources in the royal household say that they are aware that applying the new legislation on transparency to the monarchy only partially would be a disaster, and say that there will be "few limitations."

They add that the former head of the Royal Household decided two years ago that the monarchy needed to be made more accountable if it were to adapt to changing times. José Luis Ayllón, the secretary of state for relations with Congress, says that with regard to spending and accounts, no greater transparency can be imposed on the monarchy than that already established by the Audit Office or the Constitutional Court.

Asked about the possibility of approving legislation that would change the position of the Crown within the Constitution, Ayllón says no: "I have never heard of anything like this, or anybody suggesting it." Neither is there any question of Congress having any say over the Royal Household. Jesús Posada, Congress' speaker, said recently that parliament is not permitted to discuss questions about the Crown.

Transparency is not a concept that King Juan Carlos understands. For example, the Royal Household has yet to confirm or deny a newspaper story that came out a week ago alleging that he had a bank account in Switzerland where money he inherited from his father is held.

The aforementioned member of the government says the greatest damage to the image of the Crown has been caused by the Urdangarin case. A diplomat at a major European embassy in Madrid says that the future of the monarchy in Spain is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed by the government, adding that what he calls "the Spain brand" is suffering as a result.

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