King Juan Carlos’ decision to abdicate has hit the world with mixed emotions — including President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — as he leaves behind a legacy that lead Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy.
In less than a week, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe will be the King of Spain, yet a lingering economic crisis, a high unemployment rate and Royal scandals leave him with a long to-do list.
“The time has come for a younger generation to take the leading role,” the monarch announced after almost 40 years on the throne. “The long and deep economic crisis has left social scars in the country, but is also showing the way forward, and is one full of hope.”
Over the last few years Juan Carlos’ long-running popularity has began to fade. During a secret luxury elephant-hunting trip in Botswana, the king broke his hip and had to be flown back home. The news came as a shock to the people of Spain who at that time were facing a national recession that provoked years of economic hardship that still persist to this day. The king later appeared on national television and apologized to try to diminish the scandal, as there were rumors of a mistress and signs that his expensive safari trip had been subsidized by a Saudi business man. While he still enjoys a relatively constant level of popularity, this may be his attempt to “quit while he’s ahead.”
The king is not the only Spanish royal trying to escape scandal. His daughter, Princess Cristina and her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, have been under public spotlight following a corruption scandal, and are facing charges of embezzlement from a charitable foundation.
Princess Cristina has also been named a suspect in the case, though they both deny the charges. A judge is expected to decide whether to put Urdangarin – who ran the non-profit – on trial on charges of embezzling more than 6 million euros (close to $ US 8 million) from his charitable Noos Foundation in 2011. Yet, talks of a new transparency law in the palace might soon uncover the truth about royal finances.
Regardless of recent corruption, many Spaniards still feel an immense gratitude for Juan Carlos and for his crucial role in guiding Spain’s transition to democracy, after the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975) in the 1970s.
Following the death of Franco in 1975, Juan Carlos became king, and led Spain towards a constitutional monarchy and away from an autocratic dictatorship that left scars on a country that had suffered profoundly. On Feb. 23, 1981, in what is said to be Juan Carlos’ finest moment, he went on national television wearing his military uniform and ordered the right-wing military coup to stand down. His address won him the support and gratitude of the people of Spain, and helped shape the country’s new democracy.
Other people (AKA Americans) remember Juan Carlos for showing then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who was boss at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, in 2007. When Chavez refused to stop interrupting then Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s speech, Juan Carlos asked Chavez, “Porque no te callas?” Which is translated to: “Why don’t you shut up?” This phrase became a viral sensation, and even has its own Wikipedia page.
But over the last few years, Spain has questioned the need for a monarchy, and since Juan Carlos’ announcement, nationwide demonstrations have spread across the streets of Spain in protest for an established republic, including the Catalonia region, which continues its fight for independence from Spain, and is currently support for a referendum to do so. A sinking economic crisis, corruption case and a list of family scandals have many contemplating whether they should be able to choose between a monarchy or a republic that can better lead the country.
Many believe Prince Felipe’s jump into the royal throne will help save the monarchy’s popularity.
The New King
Prince Felipe de Borbon, a former Olympic yachtsman, has maintained a surprisingly clean and positive image among Spaniards throughout his families’ scandals, and those who support the monarchy have called for Carlos to pass Felipe the throne for some time now. The prince and his wife Letizia Ortiz – a former news anchor and grand-daughter of a taxi driver – are admired for their “middle-class” and low-profile lifestyle, far from the lavish and sometimes inappropriate displays of the rest of their family.
The new king and his wife have led a very relaxed life as royals, and have been frequently photographed taking their two daughters to school or making trips to shopping malls. Letizia is well liked by the people of Spain, attended a public university, and even took out a mortgage to buy her apartment in Madrid.
Yet, the 46-year-old new king will be left with the challenging job of restoring the monarchy’s prestige at a time of soaring hostility among the country. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said that Prince Felipe is well prepared to take over, as his character, and experience in public affairs over the last 20 years, guarantee that he will be able to thrive in his new role as king.
Felipe studied for a year in Canada, before accomplishing three years of military training in Spain’s armed forces academy. He also received his master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
While the monarchy’s credibility is yet to be completely restored, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s relationship with King Juan Carlos has been nothing but “exceptional,” she wrote in a letter to the king.
“The arrival of Juan Carlos to the Spanish throne marked the first rays of light that lit a country which lived the longest night of the Franco dictatorship,” expressed Cristina.
She continued by saying that at the time of the violent civic-military dictatorship, the king and the Spaniards “received with remarkable sensitivity, thousands of compatriots who managed to escape the terror, ” referring to the thousand of Argentines who fled to the European country at the time of the regime.
She closed her letter by saying that “as President of the Argentine Republic and on behalf of the government and the Argentine people, I salute the King of Spain and express confidence that his successor Felipe de Borbon and Greece, Prince of Asturias, will continue on the path of friendship and affection between the Kingdom of Spain and Argentina.”
While it looks like Spain’s monarchy will live to see another day, Prince Felipe not only has big shoes to fill, but also must find a way to charm Spaniards into falling in love with the royals again.