King Juan Carlos of Spain has always been an extraordinary monarch. Placed on the throne by a dictator, he soon sacrificed the autocratic powers he inherited and played a critical role in the country’s transition to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975. That story—and particularly his part in the collapse of a right-wing coup attempt in 1981—is the single most important strand in the narrative of modern Spain. Like a benevolent father figure, Juan Carlos stepped back from his position of authority and gently pushed the now adult nation to look after itself. And, on the whole, the Spanish have been grateful to him for it.
In many ways, he resembles the kings of folk tales; the fortunes of Juan Carlos have been inseparable from the destiny of the country over which he reigns. As the newly democratic Spain began to prosper—joining the EU in 1986 and watching its economy grow until it briefly became the eighth-largest in the world—so everything seemed rosy in the royal family. And the king’s popularity soared. The constitutional monarchy that he had done so much to establish appeared secure.
But, with the economic crisis, the problems began: austerity measures, high unemployment and a series of corruption cases going right to the top of the Spanish political class. The royal family became embroiled in the scandals when Juan Carlos’s daughter and son-in-law were implicated in the embezzlement of nearly €6m of public funds. The monarchy’s approval ratings suffered enormously, and soon this sickness of the nation appeared to be reflected even in the body of the king. Since 2010 Juan Carlos has been operated on eight times, most notoriously in 2012 after breaking his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana.
In these circumstances, it was not surprising that the king announced his abdication after 39 years on the throne. The question now, however, is whether his successor, Felipe, is sufficiently unsullied to restore the monarchy’s fortunes and the nation. He faces many challenges.
First, republicanism in Spain is growing steadily. Recent opinion polls suggest that over 43 percent of Spaniards do not want the monarchy to continue. Many of those who support the institution do so through a sense of loyalty to Juan Carlos: although he was appointed by Franco, he earned his position in effect by bringing down the old regime. Felipe is considered well prepared but has merely been born into the role.
Secondly, the two main parties—the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), which both back the monarchy—no longer enjoy the support they once did. At the recent European elections they polled under 50 percent between them for the first time. The governing PP will support the legal moves needed for the abdication to happen smoothly. So, too—probably—will the PSOE. But the Socialists are also starting the process of electing a new leader after a terrible showing in the EU elections and already the cracks are showing. Many in the party are calling for a referendum on whether Spain should become a republic.
Then, apart from all the other factors that make the present situation so tricky (the growing divide between rich and poor, the move towards the political extremes, collapsing public faith in state institutions), there is perhaps the biggest single challenge facing Spain: the ongoing moves by Catalonia to become independent.
Spain—or the Iberian Peninsula—has been breaking apart and reuniting for centuries. For well over a thousand years a pattern has played itself out, in which various “regions” split off to create sovereign nations whenever a powerful individual (such as the caliph Abd al-Rahman III or King Philip II) has been lacking at the centre. Fear that this might repeat itself in the 1930s was one of the principal causes for the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Franco subsequently held the country together by force for almost four decades.
As a democracy Spain has been sailing through uncharted waters: It has held together up to now despite lacking an authoritarian figure at the centre. Yet in many ways Juan Carlos played that role at a symbolic, subconscious level.
With his abdication, that central individual has gone and the patterns of history seem ready to repeat themselves: the Catalan president has stated that the independence moves are going to continue as planned. Spain as we know it may be about to undergo important change.
This piece first appeared at newstatesman.com