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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.


Juan Carlos and Fernando Alonso.

Juan Carlos with Fernando Alonso. Prying into the private lives of the royals used to be strictly off-limits for the Spanish press – not any more.

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.

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Published: Feb 12 2013
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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2 Comments for “Spain’s King Juan Carlos seeks to stem the opprobrium”

  1. Along with Vicenç Navarro from Público I would take issue with the Paul Preston interpretation of the king’s historic role, as well as his present role and status.

    Navarro makes five points in his argument that “the Transition” was not truly a democratic or open process as Preston has us believe, and so gave rise to a system that is only barely democratic and allergic to the kind of transparency and separation of executive and judicial power needed in a mature democracy.

    I recommend Navarro’s essay discussing Preston’s take on Juan Carlos.

    A good example of this lack of transparency is going to be manifest tomorrow when 75 year old retired army colonel Amadeo Martínez goes on trial at the Audiencia Nacional. He faces a 15 month sentence for “injuries and calumnies against the crown” for an article critical of (and admittedly quite rude to) the king. This judicial repression of republican dissent goes completely against the public image of “affability” the king likes to project. It is in fact illegal by EU Human Rights law on free expression.

    Background on the case here, trial hearing tomorrow

    Demonstration in favour of free speech and in support of Colonel Martínez tomorrow Wednesday 13 Feb at 11 am outside AN offices Calle General Prim.

    Regarding the polls on monarchism/republicanism in Spain, the figures are even worse than you suggest for the monarchists. In fact the 53% support for monarchy figure you quote is from the 2010 Metroscopia poll. In the last poll in December 2011, support fell to 49% for the monarchy with 37% republican and 14% don’t know.

    Even worse for the monarchy, among under-35 support for monarchism and republicanism was tied at 45%. Young people are increasingly anti-monarchy as you comment above. Meaning that the longer they wait for a succession, the worse it will be for them.

    Metroscopia poll December 2011, El Pais:

    That was fifteen months ago and the support for the monarchic system has certainly not improved since then.

    If I were their adivsor I would suggest that they do a Regency-Renewal thing, with Felipe as the chair of a National Regeneration Congress to reform the political system; they could call it the “Second Transition” for PR purposes. But to the delight of republicans they will do no such thing, and support for the monarchical system will continue crumbling.


    Having checked the sources for these various polls, it becomes evident that the polling agency Metroscopia has fixed its own results, in line with the prevailing monarchist ideology of El País management.

    The previous report on their polling from December 2011 clearly shows a breakdown as follows:
    In favour of monarchy: 49%
    In favour of republic: 37%
    Indifferent: 7%
    Don’t know: 7%

    Here it is in black and white:

    Now, in the latest Metroscopia report published by El País, this previously published 49% figure disappears. Miraculously, the monarchy has now received a 4% boost in the period of the Botswana hunt and apology and the revelations of Nóos, instead of the decline which is what you might expect.

    The graph of the poll progression clearly lies by showing the 2011 poll result as higher than the present doubtful 53% result, instead of lower at 49%, which is the true result.

    And the questions have changed. Now instead of the previous options of: monarchist, republican, indifferent, don’t know, there is a new set of options:

    Parliamentary monarchy
    “Diferencia monarquía/república” (????)

    Now the category “don’t know” has gone, but the “Indifferent” figure on the graph is also a lie, showing 3% for 2011 where the real figure is 7%.

    Strangest of all is the new category “”Diferencia monarquía/república” which is not explained in any way. I have no idea what it is supposed to mean. However Metroscopia has miraculously determined a retrospective answer to this non-question for previous polls – when it was never asked at all. This mystifying question receives a 22% response for 2010 and a 17% for 2011. But – I repeat – THIS QUESTION WAS NEVER ASKED IN 2010 OR 2011. So the answer to the question is something they just pulled out of their hat to make a nice graph for their new reinterpretation of events. Deeply Orwellian.

    Conclusion: Metroscopia is ijnvolved in an exercise of manipulating, distorting and lying about their own polls in order to present the case for monarchy in a more favourable state than is objectively justified. In order to carry out this manipulation, the poll agency has no scruple about retroactively changing its own poll results and creating fictional results for questions that were never actually put in the poll.

    El País in this case is presumably pressuring its in-house polling agency to produce the results it desires. In which case they really aren’t doing their royal master any favours.

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