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.

But many things are different in 2014, making the challenges for Felipe arguably more daunting than those faced by Juan Carlos in 1975. Gone is the euphoria for democracy created by the end of the long dictatorship. Gone, too, is the faith that the monarchy can keep the country together. Ironically, in recent times, no one has done more damage to the monarchy than the very man who made the country believe that the institution was indispensable.


Spain’s sour national mood is not surprising. Severe economic decline since 2008 has left nearly a quarter of the population unemployed, the highest rate for an industrialized country. In turn, the monarchy has started to seem like a luxury that the country simply cannot afford. But anti-monarchical sentiment goes deeper than that. Juan Carlos’s abdication comes after a cascade of embarrassing revelations spoiled the royal family’s squeaky-clean image (at least compared to more scandal-prone European royalty, especially Britain’s Windsor clan, to which Juan Carlos is related by blood as Queen Elizabeth’s third cousin).

In 2012, for example, Juan Carlos drew unwanted attention when he was rushed to the hospital after a fall during an elephant-hunting trip in Botswana, a trip that was previously unknown to the public. Aside from a cringe-worthy picture of him standing next to a freshly killed elephant (which prompted the World Wildlife Fund to unceremoniously drop Juan Carlos as its honorary president), the king faced harsh criticism for his apparent insensitivity about the economic plight of his fellow Spaniards. El País estimated that the Botswana jaunt cost $60,000, about twice the annual salary of the average Spaniard. It was also revealed that the king’s traveling companion was not his wife, Queen Sofía, but a German aristocrat long rumored to be his lover.

In the wake of the Botswana scandal, the media began to pry into the king’s finances and business dealings like never before. An especially damaging revelation, unearthed by El Mundo, was a secret overseas bank account containing an inheritance from his father, Don Juan de Borbon, Count of Barcelona. The revelation was notable because of the size of the inheritance (some four million euros) and the absence of any evidence that it was ever reported to the tax authorities. Even more damning, it seemed to contradict the royal family’s claim that the family was left destitute after the declaration of the Second Republic in 1931 and the overthrow of Juan Carlos’ grandfather, King Alfonso XIII.  Forced to leave everything behind, the royal family fled to Rome, where Juan Carlos was born in 1938. 

If things weren’t bad enough for the royal family, the king’s son-in-law, Duke of Palma de Mallorca Inaki Urdangarin, an Olympian turned businessman, was indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering, and tax evasion. This was the first time in Spanish history that a member of the royal family had faced such criminal charges. Making things more embarrassing were revelations that Juan Carlos’ daughter, Urdangarin’s wife, had profited from her husband’s wrongdoing. In 2013, during her appearance in court to answer questions about her involvement in her husband’s alleged crimes, the Spanish press had a field day reporting on her extravagant spending on the so-called Little Palace, a residence on the outskirts of Barcelona reportedly outfitted with some four million euros worth of furnishings.


Public opinion polls reveal the heavy toll that the scandals have taken on the monarchy. Historically, the crown led all Spanish institutions in trustworthiness, but that is hardly the case today. In a 2013 survey by Spain’s Center for Sociological Studies, the monarchy received its lowest ranking since polling on the issue began: 3.6 out of a possible ten. It came in behind the police, armed forces, the media, and the public defender. More alarming, perhaps, the public is increasingly polarized over the monarchy. For much of the post-Franco era, it has enjoyed support from across the political spectrum. Today, the only portion of the public that gives the monarchy more than a five on the trustworthiness scale is right-wing voters affiliated with the governing Popular Party. Those on the left evaluate the monarchy more harshly, with a paltry 2.7.

The monarchists hope that the king’s abdication will serve as some kind of redemption. And, in fact, there are already some signs of that. News coverage of his decision has focused on how Juan Carlos’ reign has touched the lives of all Spaniards: His stunning betrayal of the Franco regime in 1975, when he ordered the military to ready the nation for a transition to democracy; his speech to the nation on the night of the 1981 military rebellion, in which he reassured Spaniards that the transition to democracy would not be reversed; his comforting appearances following the 2004 bombing of Madrid’s Atocha train station that killed some 200 people.

It isn’t clear, though, that the goodwill generated by Juan Carlos’ abdication will transfer to the future king. It should help that Felipe is untouched by scandal and that he is popular; more than 60 percent of the public has a favorable opinion of him, according to recent polls. (It doesn’t hurt that a married a commoner, Princess Letizia, a former television anchorwoman.) But the challenges that he will inherit are formidable. Despite signs of a nascent recovery, the economy remains fragile. Even though the monarchy has no direct control over economic matters, the severity of the crisis tends to color how Spaniards view almost everything. This point was underscored by the anti-monarchy rallies that broke out in major Spanish cities the day of Juan Carlos’s resignation, including one in Madrid that drew some 10,000 people demanding a third republic.

The monarchy is also in dire need of reformation. In light of the recent scandals, the left-wing parties have called for greater transparency in the royal household’s use of public funds. One draft law making its way through the Spanish parliament would compel the monarchy to report its expenses like any other public institution. Juan Carlos, to his credit, has embraced this idea. An unaddressed problem is that the current law of succession does not allow Felipe and Letizia’s oldest daughter, Infanta Leonor, to inherent the throne. Indeed, if they had a boy before the law of succession is reformed, he would be the legitimate heir to the throne. This would be quite ironic -- and embarrassing -- in a country that prides itself as being one of Europe’s most socially progressive, as suggested by its ban on sexist advertising, gender quotas intended to ensure parity between the sexes in the workplace and government, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, the first Catholic-majority nation in the world to do so.


It is regional separatism, the defining issue in Spanish politics, however, that poses the greatest challenge (and creates the biggest opportunity) for the next king. In November, the autonomous region of Catalonia will put the issue of independence to a pubic vote. Madrid opposes the referendum, claiming that it is illegitimate because the constitution that was adopted by popular referendum in 1978 explicitly states that the Spanish territory is “indivisible.” Catalan leaders remain undeterred and have already announced that Juan Carlos’ abdication will not derail their plans. But this is not to say that they would dismiss an intervention from the crown.

Some suspect that the Catalan political leadership is not really after independence -- a tall order to be sure, and something the Basques have already unsuccessfully attempted -- but greater accommodation from Madrid on a wide range of cultural, political, and economic issues. This provides an opening for the crown to work behind the scenes to facilitate negotiations between the conservative administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan regional authorities. These negotiations could be timed to coincide with a reform to the law of succession, which is expected shortly before or after Felipe’s coronation.

The extent to which the next king will get involved in the explosive politics of separatism, and the degree to which he can make a difference on this matter, is unclear at the moment. Diego Muro, a scholar at Barcelona’s Institute of International Studies, notes that Felipe will enjoy some “sympathy” in Catalonia during his honeymoon period, despite the Catalans’ traditional disdain for the monarchy as a symbol of Spanish absolutism. “But whether he decides to use some of this political capital to become a game changer in the dispute between the Spanish and Catalan governments remains to be seen.”

How Felipe choses to play his cards on the issue of Catalonia’s separatist aspirations and the other challenges ahead of him will define his rule, and possibly even Spain’s fate. And observers should not underestimate him. It is worth remembering that Juan Carlos ascended to the throne with the moniker “Juan el Breve” (John the Brief), since few thought he would be around for very long. The young king had been seldom seen or heard after his arrival in Spain as a ten-year-old in 1948 -- the result of a deal between Franco and Juan Carlos’ father to restore the monarchy in exchange for Franco personally grooming the future king. Thus, Juan Carlos’ legitimacy at the inception of his reign was tenuous at best, resting primarily on having been handpicked by Franco. By contrast, Felipe enjoys broad support, giving the monarchy its best chance at redemption. This is, after all, at the heart of his father’s gamble: that momentary enthusiasm about a new king could turn into a long-term rehabilitation of the monarchy.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now