You know a monarchy is in trouble when the queen is jeered at the Royal Theater, of all places, and by a classical music audience. This happened to Queen Sofía of Spain last year in Madrid — a scene then repeated elsewhere with other members of the royal family.
A recent poll put support for the Spanish monarchy at a historic low: More than 60 percent of Spaniards want King Juan Carlos to step down. And all this is happening amid a series of scandals involving the royal household, the most serious of which are corruption charges against the king’s son-in-law, also involving the king’s daughter, Princess Cristina.
What is astonishing about this turn of events is that the Spanish monarchy was once deemed rock-solid. King Juan Carlos was praised both inside and outside Spain as a model monarch; the man who in the 1970s steered the country’s complicated transition from the military rule of Gen. Francisco Franco to parliamentary democracy; the king who stood up to an attempted military coup in 1981. He was said to be loved by his people, who were grateful for what he had done — and it was true.
What has changed? Not the king, but the country. Popular opinion has changed so fast and so dramatically that it is perhaps not surprising the monarchy has failed to keep pace.
Two things transform a people more than any other: war and economic hardship. War was what shaped the Spain that loved King Juan Carlos. It was the haunting memories of the 1936-39 civil war that won people over to the monarchy after Franco’s death in 1975: Few were monarchists at heart, but the institution seemed to offer a safe path to stability.
Nearly four decades later, economic privation is creating a new Spain. The financial crisis hit the country hard, leaving a trail of home repossessions, draconian cutbacks to public services and low wages. Last year, there were fears of a complete meltdown of Spain’s banking system, avoided only at the taxpayers’ expense. The unemployment rate stands at a staggering 27 percent.
All this has made Spaniards angry at the establishment and hypersensitive to the misuse of public money. That’s why, after they heard that the king’s son-in-law was being investigated for fraud on a grand scale, their blood boiled. Public esteem for the monarchy started to decline.
The real disaster came in April 2012. The country learned that the king had broken his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana, reportedly as the guest of a Syrian-born Saudi magnate. He was also — unusually, for a private trip — unaccompanied by the queen. The affair opened a Pandora’s box of awkward questions — from the state of the royal marriage to the nature of the king’s business dealings.
Above all, people were livid at the insensitivity of his shooting of pachyderms while the country was reeling under harsh austerity. The fact that the king was also a patron of the World Wildlife Fund did not help. (Soon after, the conservation group unceremoniously sacked the monarch.) To this day, the mere mention of an elephant in Spain sends people into an uproar over the king.
The irony is that Juan Carlos had been hunting and doing business around the world all his life. Most people simply didn’t know. The king and his family were shielded from criticism by an informal media covenant, their sources of income kept secret in part.
With hindsight, this proved to have been a mistake. The sudden contrast between image and reality only made disclosure all the more embarrassing. Now, thanks to the scandal, there is more transparency in the royal household, but probably not enough. Its official budget approved by Parliament is known to be around 8 million euros, but this is widely believed to represent a small part of the family’s total worth.
To his credit, the king apologized for his ill-fated safari. Yet he lacked experience in apologizing — and his people, in forgiving. It was simply awkward, and it’s become increasingly awkward as the king seeks to regain the favor of his subjects by multiplying his public appearances in spite of a series of surgeries from which he has not fully recovered.
As to the future, many believe that the appearance in court of Princess Cristina, regardless of the outcome, could be a cathartic moment that would allow a reset. That seems naïve. The king’s men pin their hopes on an early end to the economic hardship and a shift in the general mood that would bring back the Spain of yore, more tolerant of housing bubbles and royal blunders.
That could well occur: Spaniards who change their minds are not unheard of. But others speak openly of Juan Carlos’s abdication. They note that polls also show there is a chance that Crown Prince Felipe, young and untainted, could restore the monarchy’s lost prestige.
Juan Carlos has made it clear he will not even consider stepping aside, but even on this, ill luck dogs him: The abdication last year of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, soon followed by King Albert II of Belgium renouncing the crown, renewed the pressure. Rather cruelly, even the pope stepped down. And yet, Juan Carlos remains adamant: He wants to be the king he was.
That’s not the problem: He is the king he was. It’s his kingdom that is no longer the same.
Miguel-Anxo Murado is a Spanish author and journalist.