Several things have happened in recent weeks that could explain the surprising step taken by King Juan Carlos of Spain on Monday to appear before the television cameras to announce his abdication as King of Spain. I say surprising, because it is very peculiar that a person who fought so hard to achieve this position (I recommend reading a called book “Un Rey. Golpe a golpe” by Patricia Sverlo, book forbidden in Spain which can only be found on the Internet, albeit only in Spanish) has now left it so quickly and easily, when he had it for life. So somehow there must have been a much a higher interest at stake to make this “sacrifice” necessary.
Do not want to start rambling about monarchies as outdated government systems and so on, but what I want to point out is that in Spain, when compared to other kingdoms of Europe, the situation of the monarchy is very different, simply because of how the King came to reign (a dictator giving him the throne). Therefore, this institution currently gains its acceptance on a daily basis by its actions rather than through a god-given legitimacy as an eternal institution, established and recognized by all. This gives it even less popularity than it might happen in England or Holland. But even with the lowest popularity figures in decades, why make a change of King now? Why not wait to increase its popularity or to the death of the King perhaps, when you only remeber the good deeds of the deceaced? Or perhaps even wait until better economic times when Spaniards are more upbeat about things, in general? Has it been bad planning by the King? Unfortunately that is not the reason, but can ultimately become one if the Spaniards choose so.
It is precisely for this particular historical difference, for this historical abnormality that makes Spain right now a democratic monarchy that the King has chosen to abdicate. Let me explain. In the mid ’70s, three-quarters of the population felt Spanish republican, or rather , not monarchical . Neither was right for the monarchy, they preferred to continue with the dictatorship-like regime, let alone the left, who wanted to return to the 1930s republic. But the constitution of 1978 was adopted as a lesser evil, as a sort of “either this or chaos” solution and King Juan Carlos was the necessary compromise between all sides that came with it. And gradually the King gained the trust of the Spaniards with the approval of the government parties, first the UDC (centre), then the PSOE (socialists) and the PP (centre-right) in turns. Where there was a mutual understanding between the two sides benefiting from this agreement. Governments declared themselves in favour of the King and the monarch supported whichever government was elected and its policies. All were surrounded by a monarchist press who never dared to question the King, until well into the twilight of his reign (with scandals of his extramarial affairs and elephant-killing safari trips).
So what has happened this year to change all this? Well, as all happy stories go everything has to end, and as we all get older, nothing is endless.
The political generation that led the Transition (that is the time period when Spain passed from dictatorship to democracy), are getting old and retiring. It is not only the King that is aging , but after the debacle in the European elections in May, the Secretary General of the socialists (PSOE), Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, announced his resignation and call for an extraordinary party congress. This would result in the entry of a new younger leader surely not as tied to the Constitution of 78 (which reestablished democracy and the monarchy), as was the previous Secretary General and Primer Minister, Zapatero, but this time over, the new one would be accompanied by a federal committee where the vast majority of its members would also be young and untied to the Constitution and to the Transition consensus. The old men from the transition period would simply have a purely symbolic representation on the federal committee of the socialists with no real power to direct the policy of one of the two major historical parties of the last 40 years. Furthermore the PSOE is a republican party in its essence and so are its members, having only turned monarchists since the mid-70s to allow this transition into democracy. So it is only a matter of time until the PSOE returns to its essense and the Royals know that.
In these last European elections it was not only the socialists (PSOE) that lost great part of its electorate, but also the other major party the centre-right PP. The general dissatisfaction with the two major parties, supreme defenders of the 1978 Constitution and therefore the monarchy, has caused another serious alarm in the Royals. In the current Congress the support for the Prince taking over is of 85 % of its members. But if Juan Carlos waited for after next year’s general election that Congress support might still be over 50% but not by much. The growth and creation of new parties that seriously question the current Constitution (among many things, the monarchy), which could jeopardize the agreement of the Transition, demanding to redact a new one, and remove all what Franco the dictator left “tied and well tied up” before his death, might well represent the main obstacle to perpetuate the monarchy in Spain. Thus emergency alarms rang at the Zarzuela, the modest Royal home outside Madrid.
And one last point that has made King Juan Carlos decide to take the decision to abdicate as the only solution to ensure that his son may be king, has been the inaction of the current government to the street protests, the Catalan independence movement, and thousands of other issues that haunt them do nothing but sink them deeper into unpopularity and inaction. If the government had been more clever in its handling of these issues, perhaps the King reign could have been longer, and he would not have had to leave so reluctantly a spot he has envied since the day that a little man with a squeaky voice promised him a job for life.
And finally I wish to point out that, to be told that the King made the decision after his birthday in January is taking us for fools. We just need to look on how the abdications took place in Belgium and Holland, to see how improvised this was.
Now he only needs to leave it all “tied and well tied up” as some little dictator did to him beforehand. Unless Spaniards decide otherwise.