This June, an apparently significant change has occurred in Spanish politics, with the abdication of King Juan Carlos I (part of the Bourbon dynasty that has ruled Spain since 1713). If we analyse the recent history of Spain a bit closer, however, we can see that this ‘adjustment’ is set to make very little difference to the political landscape on the Iberian Peninsula.
1) The Spanish Monarchy in the Twentieth Century
Amid popular indignation,the grandfather of Juan Carlos, King Alfonso XIII, was deposed in 1931, leading to the creation of the Second Republic. The monarchists and conservatives became unhappy with the road the Republic was taking (as Spaniards had voted for change instead of for the status quo). As a result, they backed Francisco Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). After the victory of Franco’s forces, his dictatorship reinstalled the monarchy, though the repressive Caudillo had all of the real power.
When Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos became his effective successor as head of state, taking the throne just two days after the General’s death. The king, however, who had become the last king in Europe to have executive power, used his authority to dismantle much of Franco’s legacy, gaining respect for what was seen as his key role in the successful ‘Transition’ to democracy. Under pressure, he oversaw the approval of a new constitution in 1978, which turned his role into a ceremonial one (like that of monarchs in Britain and Scandinavia).
In a crucial moment for the country, he went on television on February 23rd, 1981, to persuade disgruntled right-wingmilitary officersinvolved in a coup to stand down. As a result, he was seen by many as the saviour of Spain’s young democracy. In fact, the favourable media treatment he received subsequently helped to create an image of him as “a kind of secular saint of post-Franco Spain”, according to Professor Raanan Rein from Tel Aviv University.
When the ‘Socialist’ Party (PSOE) won a landslide election in 1982, and the Transition was seen to be officially over, the king took a hands-off role: travelling the world as an ambassador; promoting Spanish business; and securing contracts for Spanish companies in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. As a result, he enjoyed the support of almost 80% of Spanish citizens even amidst the country’s relentless economic recession in 2012.
Later on in 2012, however, Juan Carlos would be seriously embarrassed when his aristocratic cluelessness was made public once and for all. On a 10,000-Euro-a-day elephant-hunting trip in Botswana, kept secret from Spanish citizens, the king broke his hip and was flown home to be treated at an exclusive clinic. But a royal being caught spending such exuberant amounts of money on murderous pursuits was not exactly something new. What hit his reputation hard was the fact that he made this trip at the height of the financial downturn in Spain, with recession and widespread unemployment allegedly ‘distressing him’ and ‘keeping him up at night’.
Funded not only at public expense, this junket, complete with private jet, was also subsidised by a Syrian-born Saudi businessman, and saw him accompanied by a German aristocrat who was allegedly his mistress. Reports that his wife tried to spend as little time as possible in his company, and that his marriage existed principally for public consumption, began to shatter his prestige even among conservative Catholics who would normally be some of his most fervent supporters. At the same time, his supposed concern for the growing ranks of the unemployed (the current crisis has seen youth unemployment rise above 50%) was shown to be not as great as his desire to squander huge quantities of money killing rare animals. The comments he had made now seemed hollow and were finally exposed as the lie that they had always been.
Once one of the world’s most popular monarchs, his popularity rapidly plummeted, and he was forced to apologise publically on television. Having narrowly survived the scandal, though, talk of abdication soon began, and investigations into the previously untouchable matter of royal affairs were launched. Spain’s previously servile media, which had supported the royal family blindly for decades and exercised “self-censorship on the subject of the King”, now hit the monarchy hard with its coverage of scandals like the Nóos Case. In this investigation, Princess Cristina and her husband, former handball hero Iñaki Urdangarin, stand accused of using the allegedly non-profit Nóos Foundation as a ‘slush fund’, collaborating with the political establishment in order to embezzle large quantities of public money.
With royals both losing credibility and finding themselves embroiled in tax-fraud and money-laundering investigations, parallels were now drawn between the monarchy and the irresponsible economic and political powers that had driven the country into the economic crisis. A telling poll from El Mundo revealed in 2013 that nearly two-thirds of Spaniards now thought the king should abdicate, while the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) soon confirmed the nation’s disenchantment by demonstrating that the popularity of the Crown had fallen from 7.46/10 in 1994 to 3.72/10 in 2014.
3) Juan Carlos’s Abdication and Felipe’s Succession
According to Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Spanish and Catalan history at Cardiff University, “the agreements made in Spain during the transition phase are [now] to some extent unravelling”. The integrity of the monarchy has been in doubt for a while and, with the two main political parties also on the rocks, the country’s economic oligarchy is almost certainly worried about the increasing social unrest in the nation (and maybe even about the possibly of revolution). One of its attempts to deal with this popular discontent has now come in the form of Juan Carlos’ abdication from the throne.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy broke the news to the country hours before the king would address the nation via television and radio, saying that Juan Carlos had been “the best spokesman”, a “tireless defender of our interests”, and had “put forward the best image of the Kingdom of Spain throughout the world”. These words not only rang hollow, but also revealed the true nature of the monarchy – to defend the interests of the country’s political and economic elites. By avoiding the revelation of the specific reasons behind the abdication, Rajoy sidestepped the fact the Juan Carlos has neither defended the interests of the Spanish people nor presented a respectable image of Spain abroad. And herein lies the true purpose behind the abdication spectacle – that of damage control and the cleaning up of the monarchy’s image.
After 39 years on the throne, Juan Carlos announced in a videotaped speech that Crown Prince Felipe would take over from him as king, thus becoming Felipe VI of Spain. “The long and deep economic crisis”, he said, “has left social scars in the country, but is also showing the way forward, and it is one full of hope”. Although he claimed to be “proud of [Spain’s] transition to democracy”, he now saw Felipe as the person with enough “maturity, preparation, and sense of responsibility” to “assume the title of head of state and open a new era of hope which combines experience with the momentum of a new generation”. Responding in part to the battering received by the PSOE and PP in the recent European elections, the king said that a younger generation must now respond to the demands of the people.
Mexican paper La Jornada said that the abdication had been planned for months by the “upper echelons of the country’s political power structures” and that the 76-year-old king’s abdication was not the result of the chronic health problems he had been suffering over the past couple of years. He refused to present explicitly the reasons for his decision, focussing only on the idea of ‘generational change’. And, in the views of many Spaniards, that is indeed the only change there will be as a result of this abdication – a generational one. The political system will remain the same, and the economic system will remain the same.
It is easy to see why Spain’s elites feel that Felipe can clean up the Establishment’s image, and that he is a more appropriate head of state for this ‘difficult economic period’. A former Olympic yachtsman (who competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and has a master’s in international relations from Georgetown University), has come out of the royal scandals relatively unscathed. And, together with his wife (former television news anchor Letizia Ortiz), he has cultivated an image of leading a relatively modest lifestyle. In January 2014 poll by Sigma Dos, for example, Felipe gained a 66% approval rating, while his father received only 41%. Just over half of the surveyed citizens, however, said they did not support the monarchy as an institution.
As a result, Felipe will inherit the challenge of restoring the monarchy’s prestige, being crowned in a country full of political cynicism, apathy, and anger at the political and economic Establishment. But Juan Carlos’s forty-six-year-old son is, though unexciting, generally tolerated, while Letizia is wildly popular. Not a charismatic figure like his father, he is more of a technocrat, but one who is fluent in four languages, who trained in the military for three years, and who has studied in Canada, Madrid, and Washington.
He won’t be able to count on the country’s long solid two-party political system, however, as both the governing Popular Party (PP) and the opposition PSOE received in total less than half of the national vote in the recent European elections. The unpopularity of the monarchy may be improved with a bit of make-up, but it will be a lot harder for the change in monarch to improve the fortunes of the Establishment’s political parties or to solve the country’s economic woes.
It will also be difficult for Felipe to deal with the independence movements in the country, with Catalonian president Artur Mas declaring that the king’s abdication will not derail his plans to hold a secessionist referendum on November 9th. Felipe may have the power to open the door to political negotiations for constitutional changes, but even PSOE proposals to grant Catalonia more autonomy or special financial benefits will find it hard to change the deep-rooted separatist feelings of the industrially powerful region. The future king himself witnessed first-hand the anti-monarchy hostility of some Catalans when he and his wife were greeted with boos at the Barcelona opera house in May 2013. For Andrew Dowling, this action in “historic, affluent Barcelona [was] deeply telling,”
Barcelona historian Joaquim Coll, meanwhile, thinks that Felipe should not be criticised yet, as he could come to “symbolise the effort of a country to remake itself”. With no real political power, however, and out of touch with social media (the royals only created their own twitter account in the last few weeks), Felipe will find it difficult to gain the trust or respect of the vast crowds of discontented and angry citizens who have frequently taken to the streets in recent years. According to Raanan Rein, though, the change came just in time. Nonetheless, he affirms that “this is the last chance to save the monarchy”. And it is not only the Spanish monarchy that has felt it necessary to abdicate in an attempt to save its reigning political and economic Establishment. Other European monarchs, including Dutch queen Beatrix and Belgian king Albert II, have also made ‘generational changes’ in the last 14 months.
4) Republican Sentiment on the Rise
For many, the Spanish monarchy is now seen as “an obsolete institution”, with people like unemployed 30-year-old Miguel Domenech affirming that, under Felipe, there will simply be “more of the same”. In his view, younger Spaniards “would prefer there were no king”. Telesur, meanwhile, backs up this comment, stressing that the unilateral decision to make a simple ‘generational change’ has opened up a new debate about the role of the monarchy. Protests, for example, immediately spread to 143 points in Spain after Juan Carlos’s abdication,with Spaniards in 12 foreign cities also making their voices heard. Demanding a referendum on the continuation of the monarchy, they echoed the voices of the two far-left political blocs which jointly won 18% of Spanish votes in the recent European Parliamentary elections. These parties have called for nationwide demonstrations in support of their proposal for a referendum on abolishing the monarchy.
In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, thousands of people turned out, some waving the red, yellow, and purple striped flag of Spain’s 1930s Republican government. And in Latin America, where many Republican Spaniards fled after Franco’s victory in the Civil War, support for republicanism is also strong. In the Ecuadorean capital Quito, for example, dozens of Spaniards called meetings to support the protests in Spain and elsewhere, while Princess Elena (who was supposed to unveil an exhibition in an institute where the works of anti-colonialist Ecuadorean artist Oswaldo Guayasamín are held) was met with protests by both Spaniards and Ecuadorean social networkers. Another group, in the centre of Quito, subsequently attempted to take photos next to the princess with Republican flags and pro-referendum banners, only to be prevented from doing so by the Spanish security guards accompanying her.
In spite of numerous anti-monarchy protests, however, a referendum is unlikely, as both of Spain’s dominant parties are opposed to such a change. Crown Prince Felipe does indeed face a turbulent period ahead of him, with widespread anger at both the monarchy and the capitalist system that supports it, but the birth of a Republic is not yet a serious possibility.
5) Any Chance of a Third Republic?
Within this context of popular discontent, groups like the Frente Cívico (or FCSM), which proposes leaving the Euro and initiating a debate among Spanish citizens to build a ‘democratic power of organised citizens’ have been formed.Another of these groups is Podemos, a party which was created in March 2014 by professor Pablo Iglesias Turrión and left wing activists associated with the indignados of the 15-M movement. Along with the United Left (IU) coalition, which was formed in 1986 by the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), these organisations present a significant opposition to the dual-party capitalist system of the PP and PSOE.
The IU’s former coordinator, Julio Anguita (who led the coalition between 1986 and 1999), believes that Juan Carlos’s abdication was a move orchestrated by Spain’s ruling economic elites in order to strengthen themselves. Anguita, who called for the foundation of the FCSM in 2012, affirms that the change in monarch will not lead to the creation of a Third Republic – nor will it end the impunity of the royal family. The adjustment, he says, was simply an act of damage control after the electoral debacle suffered by the country’s dual-party system on May 25th. It didn’t come as a shock to him, and he criticises republican movements for not having worked on the State model they would like to implement themselves in preparation for such an event. “Let’s stop waving flags so much”, he says,“and let’s work on… creating a Republican power”.
The “reigning dual-party system”, he stresses, has “been sustaining the Transition like the two columns of this building”, and found itself seriously “affected by the earthquake of May 25th”. The shock of the European elections worried the country’s political elites, who know that the Troika will continue to demand “more sacrifices…, salary cuts, and indirect taxes”, whether they try to avoid it or not. He says that they know “they need a strong political block to sustain” such measures, and that the PSOE’s four-time President Felipe González has spoken of this need himself. González, he affirms, has told the two dominant parties that “it is necessary to strengthen the dual-party system” in order to implement the Troika’s austerity policies.
Behind the current political system, Anguita insists, lie those who “truly govern in Spain: the economic powers [of] Banco Santander; Banco Bilbao Vizcaya [BBVA]; Gas Natural; and other large companies”. And it is they who are worried about the unstable political situation in the country, and the “rise of determined political forces” like IU and Podemos. The abdication of Juan Carlos, he says, was already in the planning, but the undesirable European election results made it necessary for them to “accelerate” their strategy.
The PSOE leadership, meanwhile, which is supposedly backed by ‘left-wingers’ is shamelessly supporting the monarchy because, in part, the monarchy was more popular on the ‘left’ (and even in the PCE) during the Transition than it was on the right. The party “assumed a role”, Anguita says, which allowed the “dominant castes” to push through “significant economic reforms” in the name of the left-wing and Felipe González who, unexpectedly, ended up pushing through “conservative policies”. As a result, Juan Carlos actually felt “more at ease with Felipe González than with José María Aznar” [of the PP].
The PP and PSOE are still propping up the monarchy, but others are now calling for a referendum, though Anguita claims that republican organisations need to “clarify what kind of republic they want” before they can truly progress. He supports a referendum himself, as he has “for the last 15 years”, but says that republicans shouldn’t just “limit themselves to commemorating the actions of the Second Republic”. He insists that more needs to be done, and that, if a “concrete republican project” is not fashioned, “there will be no republic”. In the worst case, the country’s oligarchy may implement a capitalist republic to save itself, but in order to forge a truly different type of political and economic system, the republican movement will need to reach an “agreement [about the] republic it wants, without having to constantly look to the past”.
Anguita himself has already published a book on the issue, called Conversations about the Third Republic, in which he puts forward a view of what the Third Republic should look like, though he affirms that others always refer back to the Second Republic and the Civil War. In his opinion, a new republican platform needs to be created, which seeks to deal with the immediate problems of today’s society with concrete actions. Republican movements also need to decide, he says, on “the key ideas of the future Republican Constitution”, relying on a popular, comprehensive process of participation in order to do so.
“The Crown”, he asserts, “is the keystone upon which the oligarchy maintained its domination during the Transition, and [the PP and PSOE] have been the columns of that process”. Instead of protesting so much, which Anguita says is unlikely to change anything, it is necessary to begin discussions on what kind of alternative system people want. Protests are necessary, he clarifies, “but the republic won’t be built” on protests alone.
Finally, he expresses his fears regarding the organisation of Spanish citizens, saying that “we Spaniards forgive everything” and that the “useless nonsense [of the media] commands the attention of a significant percentage of the Spanish population”. In his opinion, the Nóos Case and the expulsion of the Frente Cívico represent how the prosecutors and the Court of Palma de Mallora are set to defend Princess Cristina and ensure she doesn’t have to appear in court. For him, the abdication of Juan Carlos and the comments of Felipe González (about unity between the PP and PSOE) simply confirm that the monarchy and the political establishment are involved in a process of damage control and that, in reality, impunity and injustice are set to continue. Only a democratic unification of forces committed to profound change, he affirms, will truly be able to put an end to the current political and economic system.
Article written by Oso Sabio using information edited and translated from the following sources: