Wheels come off royal comeback as king prepares for new surgery

Monarch’s latest health problems have revived debate over his possible abdication, undermining efforts to counter damage caused by the Nóos corruption affair

Natalia Junquera
King Juan Carlos, pictured during an engagement on Monday.
King Juan Carlos, pictured during an engagement on Monday. Zipi (EFE)

King Juan Carlos met with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on September 16 at the Zarzuela Palace to tell him that he had been informed by his medical team that he had developed an infection in the tissue around the left hip joint he had replaced last November. Juan Carlos, who also said that a specialist from Spain who worked in the US had been brought in to advise him, looked tired and concerned at the meeting. He knew that this new problem would raise further questions about whether the king — who is 75 and has suffered a number of health concerns in recent years, as well as seeing his popularity dip due to a financial scandal involving his son-in-law — should step down in favor of Crown Prince Felipe.

The specialist, Miguel Cabanela, subsequently confirmed the infection and advised surgery, and the king will be operated on today at the Quirón Hospital in Madrid. The setback to his ongoing recovery from November's operation — the king has been suffering pain since late August — has affected him psychologically, according to sources from the Royal Household. "Anybody would be dispirited by what's happened," said Miguel Fernández Tapia, who is the Zarzuela Palace's chief medic.

Cabanela's diagnosis and chats with the king provided some relief for palace workers, however. "In recent years the king has suffered four or five health problems and has always come out well, and in good spirits, from his treatment," says a source at the Zarzuela. "This time will be no different."

This latest setback has affected the king psychologically, sources say

But the strategy that the Royal Household had put together to try to counter the damage caused by the so-called Nóos case, a money-laundering fraud scandal involving Princess Cristina's husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, has started to fall apart. The strategy, which sought to emphasize Juan Carlos' commitment to his job and intense daily schedule of events, began with a trip to Morocco in July, the point of which was to show that the monarch was, as it were, back on top of his game, having made a full recovery from a spine operation he underwent in March.

The trip went well, even if it was subsequently overshadowed by the mishandling by the Spanish and Moroccan foreign ministries of the pardoning of a number of Spanish prisoners held in Moroccan jails, among them a child rapist. During his stay the king looked well, having lost weight as a result of his four-hours-a-day exercise and rehabilitation routine, and he stood up well to his grueling daily schedule. There was a feeling in the Zarzuela that a corner had been turned. The widespread public approval of Prince Felipe's role in Madrid's failed bid to host the 2020 Olympics had also helped.

The accidental monarch

L. S. M.

King Juan Carlos's reign has been littered with mishaps. Of the 13 operations he has undergone over the course of his 75 years, including today's planned hip surgery, 11 have been the result of falls or other accidents at home, or the result of his sporting activities. The images of the king being flown from Switzerland to Spain on a stretcher aboard an air force plane in 1983 after fracturing his pelvis while skiing in Gstaad were front-page news around the world. Since then Juan Carlos has been repeatedly photographed in plaster, limping on crutches, and entering and leaving hospital. In the last three years, the pace and seriousness of his injuries has increased significantly.

  • 1948. Otitis. At the age of 10, Juan Carlos spent 15 days in hospital while attending the Swiss College in Freiburg for an ear infection. He has worn a hearing aid since 1996.
  • 1954. Appendicitis. Aged 16 and by then the heir to the Spanish throne, Juan Carlos suffered a bout of appendicitis while sailing with his parents in the Mediterranean and was operated on in Tangier.
  • 1956. Hepatitis. During his studies at the Zaragoza Military Academy, Juan Carlos caught hepatitis and was hospitalized for six days. He discharged himself without permission to watch the Vuelta a España cycle race and was sentenced to two months' confinement to barracks.
  • 1962. Arm injury. On May 8, in the run-up to his marriage, he tripped and fell while staying at the Royal Palace in Athens, damaging his arm and requiring a sling until the eve of the nuptial ceremony on May 12.
  • 1967. Herpes. Painful cold sores on his lips saw the future king grow a beard to cover the problem.
  • 1981 Cuts. In June of that year, after playing squash with Spanish tennis champion Manuel Santana, the king walked into a glass door leading to a swimming pool, cutting himself badly. He spent several hours in the Red Cross hospital in Madrid.
  • 1985. Pelvic fibrosis. As a result of his skiing accident in Gstaad, the king developed a fibrosis in his pelvis, and had to be operated on.
  • 1991. Right knee. Another sporting accident. In late December, while skiing in Baqueira Beret he ran into another skier, injuring himself in the fall. He was operated on and needed crutches until the following spring.
  • 2001. Varicose veins. A brief stay in hospital to remove inflamed veins from his right knee.
  • 2010. Benign tumor in right lung. The nodule was discovered in April during a routine check-up, and he was operated on in May. The medical team was at pains to point out to the media that the king's health was never in danger. In September, the Royal Household announced that he had been given the all clear and would not require any further treatment.
  • 2011. Knee transplant and damaged Achilles tendon. Two visits to the operating theater that year.
  • 2012. Right hip replacement. On April 14, the king was given a hip replacement at a Madrid hospital after an accident while hunting elephants in Botswana. Reflecting public anger at the incident, he made a public apology, saying: "I made a mistake, I am sorry. It won't happen again." Less than two weeks later he was back in hospital after dislocating his hip during an event at the palace.
  • 2012. Left hip replacement. This was required as a result of prolonged arthritis. His operation today is a result of an infection of the tissue surrounding the prosthesis.
  • 2013. Double slipped disc. The king was operated on in Madrid in March, and has been undergoing physiotherapy and rehabilitation since.

But the latest health problems look set to cast the king, once again, in a negative light. Just when it looked like things were going well, or were at least back under control, abdication is again being openly discussed in the media.

Juan Carlos has played down his health problems: "I am on top form, and looking forward to carrying on with my job," he declared in January, two months before going into hospital for his back operation, and just two months after his second hip replacement. His comments came on the same day that his son attended the coronation of the new monarchs of the Netherlands after Queen Beatrix had abdicated at the age of 75. The new king, Willem-Alexander is just one year older than Prince Felipe at 46.

The king knows that his latest health problems — he has had five operations in the last 18 months - coupled with high approval ratings for Prince Felipe, who has so far managed to avoid making any gaffes that might undermine his popularity, plus the handover of power in the Netherlands have combined to spark a debate that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Some politicians, such as Carlos Martínez Gorriarán of the UPyD have publicly discussed the need for him to step down. On Friday, at the first ever press conference held in the Zarzuela, the first question was: "Has abdication been considered?"

Rafael Spottorno, the head of the Royal Household, put on a brave face, boldly replying that the king had, "at no time" thought any such thing. The Zarzuela hopes that these kinds of comments can help it stave off discussion of the monarch stepping down. The Royal Household knows that neither the prime minister nor the head of the opposition, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, want the head of state to abdicate at this moment, a particularly delicate time in Spanish politics with growing support for secession in Catalonia coupled with mounting debate about the need to reform the Constitution -- not only regarding the role of the region in Spain, but also that of the monarchy. The leader of the United Left, Cayo Lara, said over the weekend that his coalition did not want the king to step down, pointing out that Prince Felipe taking over would simply be "more of the same," and instead calling for the opportunity to change the Constitution so that the Spanish people could decide "once and for all" whether they wanted a monarchy or a republic.

For the government, the current scenario is a nightmare. "Spain has two big problems right now: the crisis and the attack by the secessionists. The king is this country's biggest asset; he personifies the concept of a united Spain. The worst thing that Spain could do is to rake over the ashes of a subject that has been well and truly decided," Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo told EL PAÍS in January.

It is also true, as the Zarzuela points out, that there is more to the king, and his job, than a hip. At the same time, it is also true that the monarch's most recent problems have obliged Prince Felipe to take on a bigger role, adapting his tasks to his own character, notably by taking a much more formal approach to dealing with people. It will be Felipe and his wife, Princess Letizia, who will travel to Florida and California in November to take part in celebrations to mark the arrival of Spanish explorer Ponce de León there 500 years ago, along with the 300th anniversary of the birth of Spanish missionary Junípero Serra, who founded the first European settlements in what would later become the state of California.

And for the first time, Juan Carlos may not be able to attend the Iberoamerican Summit, which has been one of the most important meetings in his calendar for the last two decades. The king reportedly asked his medical team ahead of his operation in November of last year if it was possible to delay going into hospital so that he could attend the conference. "He has suffered months of pain. I would have had the operation much sooner, rather than trying to put it off," his doctor, Ángel Villamor, told reporters at the time.

Juan Carlos has made it clear that he is unhappy with the speculation about his health: "You like to kill me and hang me out to dry," he told reporters in June 2011. On other occasions he has played down rumors by making jokes: "I'm just going into the workshop; this is about tightening up a few loose screws..."

"The king wants to be so until he dies, or at least until his health is so poor that he can no longer meet his obligations, which at the moment is far from the case," say sources at the Zarzuela.

But for the moment, the inevitable round of rumors that come with each fresh medical problem or trip to the hospital will be another battle, adding to the most important front the Royal Household is fighting: the Nóos affair -- or as Spottorno describes it, "the martyrdom." The palace has made it clear that it does not want the case to be heard in a Valencia court, as Iñaki Urdangarin himself has requested, believing that this will simply prolong the agony, and the accompanying negative repercussions. Polls carried out by the Royal Household show that public support for the king and Prince Felipe, as well as the institution of the monarchy, are back at the levels prior to Juan Carlos's hunting accident in Botswana in April 2012, but still have not recovered from the damage caused by the corruption scandal involving Urdangarin.

The Zarzuela's initial strategy of limiting coverage of the royal family in celebrity magazines such as ¡Hola!, instead focusing on the activities of the king in trying to mediate with Catalonia or his comments on the need for a cross-party pact to stimulate employment, has become an uphill struggle. The Royal Household is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the initiative and control coverage of the king in the media. One scandal or controversy after another has made the headlines: it emerged during the Nóos judicial investigation that the king lent the Infanta Cristina 1.2 million euros to refurbish one of the couple's homes; then there is the matter of his father's Swiss bank accounts... which have proved major setbacks and of more interest to the media than his official activities as head of state.

Efforts at greater transparency, such as publishing the Royal Household's accounts or the documentation signed by a notary relating to the king's loan to his daughter, along with last Friday's unprecedented press conference, have simply been buried by more bad news.

In the middle of this seemingly endless perfect storm, the only beneficiary is Prince Felipe, who will continue to take on a greater role in official and public life. Surveys show that he now enjoys greater popularity than the king, although Princess Letizia is still less liked than Queen Sofía.

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