Spain's Game of Thrones

King Juan Carlos Exits the Stage

Royal Palace, Madrid.
Royal Palace, Madrid. (Bernard Lafond / Flickr)

When King Juan Carlos abdicated the Spanish throne earlier this week, Spaniards were caught off-guard. As recently as April, Juan Carlos, who is one of the modern era’s most successful monarchs -- he assumed the throne in 1975 following the death of General Francisco Franco and is widely considered to be the father of Spanish democracy for having orchestrated a widely-praised democratic transition that became a model for many other countries -- was shutting down rumors that his transfer of some responsibilities to his son, 46-year-old Prince Felipe, was a sign that he might step down. “Abdication is not an option,” said a royal spokesman at the time. His statement was in keeping with Juan Carlos’s longstanding pledge that “he would die with his crown on.”

Juan Carlos’ sudden resignation is a gamble to restore the monarchy’s luster. Although the king is generally lauded as a class act, his exit from power has been anything but graceful. For the last two years, the king’s conduct, and that of other royals, has provoked unprecedented criticism from the media, the general public, and the political class, with some calling for the outright abolition of the monarchy and the return to republican government. Such calls represent the views of a small minority of Spaniards, but they are suggestive nonetheless, if only because of the infamy surrounding republicanism in Spain. The country’s last experiment with it, the short-lived Second Republic, ushered in the horrific violence of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and nearly 40 years of Francoist dictatorship in 1939.

Curiously, Juan Carlos’ gamble also entails a high stakes game of political brinkmanship for the incoming king, not unlike the one he himself encountered after Franco’s death. Felipe, like Juan Carlos, comes to the throne as a young and untested leader (Juan Carlos was 43 when he was crowned king). The current economic crisis is the most severe Spain has experienced since the one around the time of Franco’s death, which saw an economy that had been enjoying decades of dramatic growth take a nosedive thanks to the international oil crisis. And today, as in the early years of the newly created constitutional monarchy, restive regions are trying to break away from the Spanish kingdom.

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