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What’s the Spanish monarchy still good for?

A new republic would be the best guarantee of a united Spain built on a foundation of respect and freedom to decide

Spanish King Felipe VI (l) with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.
Spanish King Felipe VI (l) with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.STEPHANIE LECOCQ (EFE)

Forty years ago the Spanish monarchy, and more precisely Juan Carlos I, the king at the time, provided political guidance during the transition that moved our country from a dictatorship to a democracy such as existed in Western Europe at the time. That political process, which we all refer to as the Spanish Transition, was the result of the combined forces – or weaknesses as writer Vázquez Montalbán put it – of political and social actors from both the dictatorship and the democratic resistance. The former had almost all the power but no legitimacy; the second had all the legitimacy and scarcely any power.

The monarchy is no longer a symbol of unity and harmony

The result of the transition disappointed some sectors of the democratic resistance. Some of its most active members who were at the heart of the fight against [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco, a fight filled with heroism and sacrifice, were disappointed to see that there was no democratic break with the dictatorship, but instead negotiations with members of the dictatorial regime who understood that Spain’s modernization could only come about through democracy and by being a part of Europe.

There was no Portuguese-style revolution [the Carnation Revolution of 1974] or a break with the past, and many militant anti-Francoists, who were republican by definition and tradition, were disillusioned, feeling betrayed by the leaders and the main parties on the left. They had been the heroes and heroines of the struggle against Franco, but they were in a minority. It would have been difficult for things to have unfolded much differently. The referendum on political reform was a success for Adolfo Suárez [the first elected prime minister of the democratic era] against the democratic opposition, and the electoral results from 1977 to 1982 left no doubt that most citizens were in favor of the political forces who had accepted (the Communist Party of Spain included), with a greater and lesser degree of enthusiasm, the central role of the monarchy in guiding the democratic process in Spain.

The Spanish Royal Family.
The Spanish Royal Family.JAVIER LIZON (AFP)

In Catalonia and the Basque Country, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Convergence and Union (CIU) soon became the hegemonic parties in their respective regions and they ended up accepting the monarchy – CIU almost right from the start and the PNV later ­– focusing their efforts instead on  negotiating territorial rights, which paved the way for the system of devolved powers known as el estado autonómico. The only electorally relevant force in the Basque Country and Navarre that remained outside of this consensus were the far-left radicals known collectively as izquierda abertzale. Today, this group has admitted that [Basque terror group] ETA caused terrible suffering – the wounds are still raw – and it is evident to all Basque sectors that ETA did not achieve even one of its main political goals.

The monarchy and Juan Carlos I, whose status as Franco’s heir was initially questioned by the left, did not convince everyone to the same degree, but they did have the implicit support of a pragmatic population, the majority of whom voted for the 1978 Constitution.

It is true, as Suárez said to journalist Victoria Prego off the record in an interview dug up by La Sexta TV channel, that his government did not want to risk a referendum in which the Spanish might opt for a Republic. But it is no less true that there was no anti-monarchy movement in Spain as a consequence of not holding such a referendum. Spain put up with Franco’s heir in exchange for democracy and, bit by bit, the heir was loved by a broad section of the population with the help of the mainstream media.

Our country needs institutional republican tools to guarantee social justice and recognize the diversity of the people of Spain

The attempted coup of February 23, 1981, in spite of lingering doubts over the real role played by Juan Carlos, helped to consolidate the opinion that only the king could avoid a coup that would return power to the military  – a military that was then clearly still in favor of Franco and irked by the changes that were taking place in the country. However, 40 years on, it is perhaps time to ask whether the monarchy is still of use to our democracy?

In a recent editorial in this paper, it was said that we shouldn’t change the monarchical system “on account of electioneering or opinion polls,” thereby recognizing that the opinion of the Spanish people might not be favorable to a monarchy predominantly associated with privileges and corruption, while suggesting that a proposal to get rid of the monarchy could swing the vote. The fact that the Center for Sociological Investigation (CIS) always refrains from asking the question in its surveys is very significant.

But the editorial did come up with a very convincing argument: “A monarchy is as democratic as a republic, as long as it guarantees freedoms.”

Undoubtedly, the democratic nature of a political regime is defined by the degree to which freedoms are guaranteed, not whether the head of state is elected or not. The quality of a democratic system can, however, be measured. It would be absurd to say that a system that forbids same-sex marriage is as democratic as one that allows it.

There are different degrees of democracy and all democrats know that equal rights for heterosexuals and homosexuals and for men and women are an advance in the depth and quality of democracy. Similarly, democracy would be deepened with a head of state who is elected to the role, not one who inherits the position. The moment the monarchy stops being the price we have to pay for a system of liberty – the Spanish Army is no longer the threat to democracy that it might have been 40 years ago – its relevance to Spanish democracy is lost.

The moment the monarchy stops being the price we have to pay for a system of liberty, its relevance to Spanish democracy is lost

The fact that the monarchy has become a symbol that increasingly appeals only to the more conservative members of the population while increasingly disturbing liberals and triggering outright rejection among a majority of people in the Basque Country and Catalonia, means that it is no longer a symbol of unity and harmony. If the coup of February 23 strengthened Juan Carlos, the address that King Felipe VI made on October 3 [in response to the unauthorized independence referendum in Catalonia last year] weakened him. Felipe VI was unable to come across as a symbol of dialogue and instead became a symbol of authority for a government that failed to achieve a political solution to a conflict which was in large measure fueled by its own ineptitude.

Our country now needs to be equipped with institutional republican tools, far removed from uniformity and Caesar-antics; tools that will represent fraternity; that will guarantee social justice and which will recognize the diversity of the people of Spain as a [collective] identity to be protected and respected. The driving force behind the Indignados movement, which today drives the feminist movement, moves us in a republican direction, creating institutions that protect the people before they protect intransigent figures of authority.

The plural nature of Spanish politics and Spanish identity is a now a reality in a society that has had 40 years to mature democratically. To normalize this plurality and avoid tension and conflict between Spaniards means leaving divisive symbols behind, and equipping ourselves with the tools that will help us walk forward together as a country. A new republic will be the best guarantee for a Spain united on a foundation of respect and the freedom of its people to decide.

Pablo Iglesias is the secretary general of Podemos.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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