Juan Carlos: Spanish monarch struggling to revive a tarnished crown

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FT.com - The King of Spain could not have wished for a better occasion, or more loyal company, to mark his return to public life on Monday. Surrounded by the gilded splendour of the throne room in Madrid’s royal palace, Juan Carlos was presiding over the traditional New Year ceremony to honour Spain’s armed forces.

Facing him below the glittering chandeliers stood the country’s senior military officers, chests loaded with medals, along with the prime minister, cabinet members and army veterans. Amid the polished boots and purple sashes, there was not a republican in sight.

The ceremony ended as it does every year, with throaty cries of “Viva España!” led by the king himself. Yet there seemed nothing vivacious about the man at the centre of attention. Juan Carlos, 76, had arrived on crutches, shuffling uneasily, his face reddened and blotchy. He delivered his speech in halting tones, faltering over words and gasping for breath. It came as a stark reminder that the king is an old man. He had not appeared in public since a hip operation in November, the latest in a series of small but persistent health problems.

It was hard to look at Spain’s ageing monarch and not read more into his stumbling performance than the simple advance of time. Just a day before the ceremony, a Spanish paper had released a poll showing just how far Juan Carlos has fallen in the estimation of his subjects. Almost two-thirds said they wanted him to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Felipe; more than 40 per cent said they wanted Spain to be a republic.

On Tuesday, the royal house suffered a fresh humbling: Princess Cristina, the king’s younger daughter, was formally declared a suspect in a criminal probe into her husband’s alleged shady dealings. The investigating judge said she may have committed money laundering and tax fraud, and called her in to testify in court on March 8. Another bad day for the Bourbons looms.

The monarch has faced testing times before. He showed acute political judgment along with remarkable personal bravery, traits rarely demanded from a modern monarch, in the early stages of his reign, as he helped steer Spain from dictatorship to democracy. In 1981 he intervened decisively to squash an attempted military coup, earning the gratitude and respect even of diehard republicans on the left. Paul Preston, the historian of Spain and biographer of the king, argues that without Juan Carlos, it is hard to see how Spain could have ended the dictatorship of Francisco Franco “without another civil war”.

Compared with the drama of those days and the hardship of his early life, the king’s current problems may seem trivial. But modern royals need at least a degree of popular respect if they are to survive. The ridicule and open hostility that often greets Juan Carlos’s tribe today – the royals have repeatedly been booed at public functions – would pose an existential threat to any monarchy. Spain’s royal house, however, is more vulnerable than most.

Born in exile in Rome in 1938, Juan Carlos had a lonely, unhappy childhood, scarred by his family’s failure to reclaim the throne. It was a quest that led his father to commit an act of cold regal realpolitik, when he handed his 10-year-old son over to Franco to be groomed as the dictator’s heir. Raised amid ageing aristocrats in Madrid, frequently called in for political lectures from Franco, Juan Carlos passed a joyless adolescence. He finally assumed the throne on 22 November 1975, two days after Franco’s death.

What sustained him during his early life was an overwhelming sense of duty to his family, and a burning desire to see the Bourbons restored to the throne. It was the same motivation that convinced Juan Carlos to break with Francoism – and to help steer Spain towards democracy. “He realised that the only way to survive on the throne was to not do what Franco wanted, and aim for a constitutional monarchy,” says Professor Preston.

His role in Spain’s transition made him a hero, which in turn made it easy for Spaniards to overlook his foibles – such as the fondness for shooting at bears and his friendship with authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

His standing finally plummeted, along with that of all other post-Franco institutions, during the recent economic crisis. “The king is seen as the founding father of the current system,” says Charles Powell, a Madrid-based historian and royal biographer. When that system failed to prevent the crisis, leaving Spain with record unemployment, the king was unable to escape the public wrath. In the eyes of many younger people, who have no memory of the transition, he is simply part of the nexus of political and financial power that pushed the country towards the economic abyss.

His image took a further knock when it was revealed that he went on a luxurious elephant-hunting trip at the height of the financial crisis. Just weeks before his ill-judged holiday, the king had remarked that he was so worried about the nation’s unemployed that he could not sleep.

Looming behind these recent woes is a deeper problem for Spain’s royal house. The Bourbons may be an ancient family, but their grip on the throne is far more tenuous than may appear: no reigning Spanish king has passed on the crown to his offspring since 1885; the monarch’s father never had the crown, and his grandfather died in exile. What the Bourbons lack is that aura of timeless, inevitable continuity that is the very essence of royalty.

Some believe the monarchy will end with Juan Carlos; others hope that Felipe, a diligent prince who enjoys broad popularity, will be able to revive the royal fortunes. Palace officials say the king himself has been saddened by recent events, but that he is determined to recuperate the crown’s lost prestige himself. Juan Carlos will know what is at stake: not just his own legacy, but the survival of the throne he sacrificed so much to reclaim.

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