A necessary king

The monarch who smoothed the path to democracy has given up the crown to further its modernization

The more than 38 years that King Juan Carlos has spent on the Spanish throne are inextricably linked to democracy, which was finally recovered in Spain after a long and dark dictatorship.

It was the king’s decision to renounce the absolute powers he had inherited from General Francisco Franco, which allowed him to organize a democratic system and oversee Spain’s new Constitution, under which the responsibilities of the king were limited to those usually seen in other parliamentary monarchies.

It was also his decision to intervene during the attempted coup that took place on February 23, 1981, solving a highly dangerous situation that saw the nascent democratic system at risk.

His abdication is not simply a protocol-related relief, but rather an attempt at modernizing the monarchy

And it was his decision – announced on Monday – to abdicate, leaving the responsibility as head of state in the hands of his son, Prince Felipe.

Each of these three major decisions represents a process of extreme bravery – and that includes his abdication. The move is not simply a protocol-related relief, but rather an attempt at modernizing the monarchy, renewing an institutional system that needs to deal with the challenges of the future – just as Juan Carlos had to do in the past.

Between the major decisions taken during his reign, there have been a number of different periods in the life of the king. The most important of these was his neutrality in political battles, and the scrupulous respect he has shown for constitutional procedures.

In line with other royal families in Europe, the king is abdicating because he is aware of the need for change

The qualities shown by Juan Carlos have had a decisive effect on the usefulness of the monarchy, because he has served in the role of moderator, as assigned to him by the Constitution.

It is fair to say there have been times when King Juan Carlos has been better in his role than others, and it should be said that these tend to correspond to relations with the prime minister in office at the time. Spain’s first leader in the democratic era, Adolfo Suárez, and the first Socialist prime minister, Felipe González, knew how to get the best out of the king, and it was during these times that the government was most in tune with the needs and expectations of Spaniards. This was not the case, however, during the era of Popular Party Prime Minister José María Aznar, who was somewhat jealous of the popularity and prestige of King Juan Carlos; nor during the time Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was in power.

Then his physical challenges became a problem, something that indirectly led to the hunting trip incident in Botswana, after which the king saw fit to ask the Spanish people for forgiveness. While he was still recovering from his injuries, the king made an effort to win back the trust of the people, and has carefully chosen the best time to proceed with his own replacement.

The process of change will take place in an environment of normalcy, and within the framework of the Constitution

In line with what other royal families in Europe have begun to do, King Juan Carlos is abdicating because he is plainly aware of the need for change. He knows that the leadership of the state does not belong to the royal family, but rather the Spanish people. This is why he has prepared for the handover of his responsibilities, and is voluntarily stepping down, just at the time when changes are needed. These changes, which include constitutional reform, will take place with the moderation of a new head of state, Prince Felipe, who, at 46, is much closer to the average age of today’s Spaniards.

The process of change will take place in an environment of complete normalcy, and within the framework of the Constitution. There is no doubt that the governing Popular Party, and the main opposition Socialist Party, were kept informed about the situation of the king’s abdication, and will offer their total support.

But for the change to be introduced in a situation of normalcy does not mean that Prince Felipe will be inheriting a stable situation, nor that the institution of the monarchy enjoys general support. In fact, Spain is dealing with a number of problems right now, running from the disaffection of some of its citizens towards the current institutional system in place, to the drive for independence from Spain in Catalonia. But the heir to the throne has shown many signs that he knows what to do.

The nation is the true source of legitimacy for the monarchy. Prince Felipe will now have to win the confidence of Spaniards, building on qualities shown by his father and facilitating the modernization that Spain urgently needs. Not only is he inheriting a kingdom of peace, progress and understanding, but also problems of many different types, which will need the attention of the future king.