Spain’s King Juan Carlos seeks to stem the opprobrium
The monarch’s eroding popularity was underlined once again at the weekend when he was booed at a sporting event. So far, his efforts to win back Spaniards’ support don’t seem to have paid off.
By Guy Hedgecoe
Not so long ago, the boos that echoed around Vitoria’s Buesa Arena on the arrival of King Juan Carlos for the basketball Copa del Rey final at the weekend would have surprised many Spaniards and scandalised quite a few others.
Such an open display of hostility towards the monarch would have been almost unthinkable. And yet on Sunday, when the booing was so loud that the playing of the national anthem ahead of the game between Barcelona and Valencia was cut short, it no longer seemed all that surprising or shocking, such is the sliding esteem of the Spanish royal family.
The most defining moment of the reign of Juan Carlos now looks so far away it could be from another era. In 1981, the young monarch helped quash a coup d’etat by right-wing civil guards, firmly telling the nation in a televised address that the newly democratised Spain would not tolerate the putsch. The gesture secured a place for him in the hearts of many Spaniards.
But his most humbling public experience, 31 years later, was also televised. In April of 2012, it was revealed that the king had broken his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana. The fact he was enjoying a lavish, environmentally unfriendly holiday just as the Spanish economy was sinking to a new nadir sparked a severe backlash.
As he left hospital, a frail-looking Juan Carlos meekly told television viewers: “I’m very sorry. I made a mistake and it won’t happen again.”
“This is an unprecedented moment because the king has never before had so little popularity among Spaniards,” Josep Lobera, an independent polling expert, told Iberosphere. Only 53 percent of people now believe Spain needs a monarchy, down from around 70 percent five years ago.
The elephant-hunting scandal has contributed to this erosion of support. But so too has the economic crisis. The financial woes of Spaniards have accentuated the errors and ethical shortfalls of some of their country’s biggest institutions. Banks, the judiciary and the political system are all victims of this phenomenon. So too is the monarchy.
But the Spanish royals have also been hurt by a corruption case in which the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, is implicated. The former handball player, who is married to the king’s younger daughter Cristina, is being investigated for allegedly embezzling public funds when he was head of a charity. Carlos García Revenga, the former secretary of Cristina and her sister Elena, has also come under scrutiny for combining his royal duties with work at the charity in question.
A recent El País editorial warned that “the impression is growing that the alleged corruption, tax fraud and other crimes being investigated affect people under the employment of the royal family.”
As part of a strategy to stem the opprobrium, last month, the royal family revealed its budget for 2013 had been cut by four percent.
No tough questions
And in an attempt to restore his own image, Juan Carlos has once again used the camera. In January he turned 75, and as part of the low-key celebrations, the first television interview with him for 12 years was broadcast. It was soft and seemingly choreographed, with no probing questions about the king’s hunting exploits or controversial son-in-law. But it highlighted his efforts to improve the royal family’s image.
“His health is terrible but he has good advisers,” Paul Preston, a biographer of Juan Carlos and author of The Spanish Holocaust, told Iberosphere.
Preston contrasts the situation in the UK, where the queen is enjoying high levels of popularity following well-orchestrated Jubilee celebrations, with Spain, where the royal family is battling to save its image and economic austerity is more pronounced.
“The Spanish monarchy would not be able to do the whole pomp and razzmatazz , but what they are doing – the TV appearances and so on – is a start,” he says.
Whether it is enough is another matter. The corruption allegations surrounding Urdangarin have tainted the whole family by association, while the elephant-hunting furore focused outrage specifically on Juan Carlos. It helped capsize the traditional view of him as a hands-on monarch who related to his people much more easily than, say, the British queen.
And while prying into the private lives of the royals used to be strictly off-limits for the Spanish press, lately the media have fewer scruples when it comes to publishing lurid or insinuating stories about Juan Carlos.
Twenty-first century makeover
The royal family’s image makeover – which has included publishing some details of its finances and relatively dynamic new appointments as heads of the royal household and its press department – is a far cry from Juan Carlos’s years as a young monarch. As a prince, he was groomed to succeed dictator Francisco Franco as the head of a repressive right-wing regime. Instead of following the wishes of the dictator, on being crowned king he played a crucial role in ushering in democracy. Preston points to the “amazing capacity for self-sacrifice, courage and dedication” that Juan Carlos displayed after Franco’s death in 1975 through until democracy had been established.
That process, now reverentially known as “la Transición”, laid the foundations for Spain’s rapid development and mostly destroyed the common view of Juan Carlos as a right-wing puppet. His decisive action during the 1981 coup sealed his credibility as a courageous democrat.
But as Josep Lobera points out, that key period in Spanish history now looks a long way off to young people.
“People who are under 35 don’t see the Transition – and the king – in such a good light as older Spaniards,” he says. “This is the first generation not to feel that emotional link to the king due to what he did in the past.”
This may help explain why the popularity of Juan Carlos’s son, Felipe, who just turned 45, has remained relatively constant, because he came of age well after the Transition. His ability to avoid scandals of his own while other members of his family are mired in bad publicity has added to his gravitas and status as the heir-in-waiting.
These days, the king focuses much of his energy on promoting Spanish trade abroad rather than safeguarding democracy. By all accounts he excels in this role, due in great part to what Preston calls his “incredible affability”.
“He’s our best ambassador. If he travels with us, we do business,” the vice-president of Spain’s employers’ association, Arturo Fernández, told El País newspaper recently.
But with Juan Carlos no longer basking in the same glowing admiration of Spaniards that he once enjoyed, his biggest challenge now is to market not his country, but himself and his family, as a viable enterprise.
Next: La Liga: Mourinho eyes Manchester United clash and Madrid exit
Previous: Euro wobbles as ECB hints at intervention to curb its strength
Published: Feb 12 2013
Category: Featured, Politics, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=7915
You can follow any responses to this entry via RSS 2.0
Tags: spain, spain crisis, spain economy, spain news, spain royal family, spanish news, spanish royal family