The first president to take office after Spain’s return to democracy passed away this spring. The death of Adolfo Suárez was met with a significant outpouring of public sympathy, and Madrid’s international airport was promptly renamed in his honor. The announcement of the abdication of King Juan Carlos was met with considerably less fanfare. When he appeared at midday on June 2, the time when Spaniards enjoy an extended lunch break, to notify the country of his immediate retirement in favor of his son, Felipe, few tears were shed. Instead, a collection of upstart left parties—who had won big in the European elections one week earlier, against the governing center-right party and the traditional socialist party—organized massive protests in a dozen major cities. In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the past home of the indignados movement, thousands of people waved the flag of the Spanish Republic and demanded a referendum on the future of the monarchy.
In the 1970s, Juan Carlos pushed Spain toward democracy after the death of long-time dictator and personal patron of the king Francisco Franco. Juan Carlos also successfully diffused a military coup in 1981 in which a group of Franquista army officers entered the national parliament and held politicians hostage, bolstering his reputation at home and abroad as a monarch willing to embrace a democratic future and European integration rather than Spain’s autocratic past.
Recently, things have not gone as well for the royal family. The king’s son-in-law has become the scourge of the Spanish media for embezzling millions of euros from a charity he operated. His wife Cristina, the king’s daughter, has also been accused of fraud and hindering the investigation. As Spain’s economy continues to wither and European austerity laps at its shores, the prospect of seeing Princess Cristina led away in handcuffs continues to amuse journalists tired of reporting on the one-third of the country that is unemployed. But perhaps no one has tarnished the monarchy more than the king himself, who, at the height of the economic crisis, was caught paying thousands of euros to shoot endangered elephants in Botswana. One of the most popular memes circulating on social media after the announcement of the abdication was a photo of elephants joyously dancing in a conga line.
The Spanish political establishment seems to have been goaded into consensus about the future of the monarchy: on June 11 the parliament gave the king’s succession plan a resounding “sí” in congress. There were some doubts in the center-left opposition, but they were quickly quelled by reminding lawmakers of the junta of 1981. Only the new and more radical left has dared to express dissatisfaction with the constitutional compromise chiseled out after Franco’s death in 1975 that allowed for the monarchy. To them, along with many other Spaniards, the bargain struck when making the new constitution was a temporary means to achieve democracy without giving the military justification for capturing the state—a realistic threat in the 1980s, when rebellious officers were wallpapering congress with bullets. The leader of the center-left PSOE, Alfredo Rubalcaba, said as much in a speech to Parliament that praised Juan Carlos’s legacy while also offering vague intimations that Spaniards may want to vote on their status as royal subjects at some undetermined point in the future. For now, despite the simmering embezzlement scandal, the monarchy seems like a viable institution to represent a society in which endemic political corruption has embittered citizens against all major political parties.
No great surprise, then, that only a small number of protesters have hit the streets with their model guillotines held aloft. Juan Carlos is one of the few European monarchs in recent memory to have achieved anything beyond a well-publicized garden party. Some see him as the savior singularly responsible for rescuing the country from another period of dictatorship. Others counter that his contribution was notable but nothing more than the necessary thing to do at the time. Very few place him in the tradition of Franco, which is why it was fairly easy to ratify his son as the symbolic head of state on June 19. The celebration was lackluster: it bore all the hallmarks of a country in crisis and none of the pomp of previous celebrations that attempted to resurrect Spain’s Golden Age. Spaniards in Madrid were able to use their national flags one last time after their team, the reigning world champions, were humiliatingly dismissed from the World Cup after just two games. The republican tricolor flag was banned from the streets where the coronation took place.
The massive scandals that have engulfed the Casa de Borbón (Juan Carlos’ pedigreed line, which includes Louis XVI) are omens that Spain may not always see its monarchs as proper national representatives on the world stage. The ongoing investigation into the former king’s son-in-law bears an unwelcome resemblance to more unsavory current scandals, like the PSOE’s pillaging of 2 billion euros from professional training funds in Andalusia. However, it seems that the monarchy can still cast itself as a more legitimate symbol of social authority and cultural tradition than the political class, who are viewed as little more than graft networks that take advantage of Spain’s regional politics to carry away more loot.
What would be the consequence of the monarchy falling? Would it usher in a final chapter of republicanism, or signal the moral decay that the Spanish financial crisis has brought? Traditionalists, concerned with the stability of a country ravaged by debt and unemployment, rightfully assert the validity of the post-Franco constitution. Progressives are bewildered by the desire to embrace a royal family embroiled in crisis at a time in which aristocracy seems not just antiquated but downright offensive. If King Felipe manages to cut through the privilege of a life of unearned honors and pompous foreign trips and succeed as a statesman in embattled times, he will prove himself. If the family is hit with another imbroglio, or the son proves to be a poor imitation of his father, then the monarchy could be challenged again.
Max Holleran is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University.