Juan Carlos’ abdication was unexpected in that he had always insisted he would never abdicate. But for many Spaniards and for observers of Spain, it doesn’t come as a surprise. The monarchy in Spain is in crisis, like many other Spanish institutions. According to a recent opinion poll less than half of Spaniards approve of the monarchy and 62% wanted him to abdicate. Indeed, popularity ratings of the monarchy are lower than they have ever been since the return of democracy in 1977.
Why was the King popular before? Above all, because he was identified with the return of democracy. He played a role in the construction of the new democracy after he became king in 1975 on the death of the dictator Franco. This popularity was consolidated when he helped to dismantle an attempted coup in 1981, appearing on television as commander in chief and ordering all soldiers who had taken part in the coup back to their barracks.
So why has the monarchy suffered such a loss of legitimacy in recent years? There are number of reasons. First of all the monarchy is tainted with corruption like many other public institutions in the country. The King’s son in law, Iñaki Urdangarín is on trial for tax fraud and his wife Cristina, the King’s younger daughter, is under investigation for embezzlement, as part of the same investigation. The King’s popularity ratings were also deeply affected by the scandal that broke out 2 years ago when he broke his hip while on a secret, ‘millionaires’ safari in Botswana. During that trip he shot an elephant and posed in front of its dead carcass for a private photo that then became viral. A third reason lies with the erosion of legitimacy of political parties and public institutions in Spain, including the monarchy, as a result of the economic crisis and the espousal of a neo-liberal austerity package by the present conservative government.
The reasons the king gave today for abdicating were predictable. He said he wanted to give way to a new generation with the energy to face up to the difficult times ahead. His successor, his son Felipe, is 46 and is married to a divorced commoner, so that she will be the first commoner queen in Spanish history. This and their relatively frugal and democratic style of living is more in tune with contemporary Spanish society. Importantly, they are not identified with any corruption. Felipe also has witnessed politics and state matters at first hand from an early age. His father kept him by his side during the negotiations over the attempted coup in 1981.
However, Felipe VI (as he will become), will face serious challenges as royal embodiment of the nation in the months ahead, of which perhaps the most difficult is the threat of secession of Catalonia. A referendum on independence is planned for 9 November by the Catalan government, although it has not been approved by the Spanish parliament.
The new King will also be dealing with the erosion of legitimacy of the monarchy and the rise of republicanism. We must not forget that the restoration of the monarchy in 1975 took place within Francoist legality. The people of Spain voted for a republic and against the monarchy in 1931 and Juan Carlos’s grandfather Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate. Republican legality was destroyed by a military uprising in 1936 and the Civil War that followed, in which Franco achieved ascendancy and established his Dictatorship. The democracy that was restored in 1977 was not that of the Second Republic, although the new democracy was approved in elections in 1977 and in the referendum on the new Spanish Constitution in the following year. It was a democratic settlement reached after considerable negotiation and horse-trading with Francoist political and military elites prepared to accept change at a price. That price, some observers argue, was too high. Since then, the balance of power has changed radically in ways not reflected in the Constitution.
The new wave of republicanism is in part a rejection of the terms of the transition to democracy, a rejection, in short, of the present legality. But it is above all fuelled by the economic crisis and the way successive governments have handled it. This was reflected in the results of the recent EU elections. The vote for the Socialist Party and the Popular Party sank to historic lows of 22% and 25% respectively, while the radical Left won almost 18% of the votes and the regional nationalist and separatist parties received 9%. The most striking feature of these results is the unexpected success of a party formed only a few months ago. Podemos emerged from the multiform activities of the Indignados or 25M movement, similar to the Occupy movements elsewhere, which was launched at a massive demonstration in Madrid on 25 May 2011.
The significance of the results of the EU elections in Spain is that more votes went to parties seeking to abolish the monarchy or separate from the State than to either of the established parties which have dominated a largely two-party system for almost forty years. And of these votes, almost 18% went to those parties wishing to replace the democracy of 1977 with a new democracy whose parameters are as yet unclear. Clearly, the outcome of next year’s general elections cannot be predicted on the basis of the EU elections. Yet the electoral results in Spain point to something more profound than simply a vote of protest against Europe. The future of politics in Spain remains uncertain, as does the future of the Spanish monarchy in the figure of the new King.
Sebastian Balfour is Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science