Spanish King Who Restored Democracy Resigns

Now ex-King Juan Carlos I embraces his son, the new King Felipe VI. Image from BBC News.

Now ex-King Juan Carlos I embraces his son, the new King Felipe VI. Image from BBC News.

Spain’s long-serving king is king no more, having formally given up the throne and handed it to his son. Thus ends the reign of the man who created modern Spain, guiding it from a totalitarian, fascist-style dictatorship to a modern democracy.

According to the abdication agreement, Juan Carlos I will still be able to use the title “King of Spain” in an honorary capacity, but the real king will be his son, who has taken the name Felipe VI. The abdication has the support of both of Spain’s largest political parties, and supporters are already buying up abdication memorabilia from stores across the country. However, the news has led to protests by those Spaniards who oppose the monarchy and want to restore a republic.

The reasons for Juan Carlos’s retirement are not clear, as the only reason he gave was that he was letting “a new generation” take over. However, his health has reportedly been failing him, and the royal family has been rocked by recent troubles and scandals. Yet there is still another reason he lay have wanted to retire instead of stay on the throne until he dies – it gives him a chance to oversee the final stage in a lifelong project to make Spain a stable and democratic constitutional monarchy.

Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator whose memory still haunts much of Spanish politics

Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator whose memory still haunts much of Spanish politics

Few European countries have had a modern history as politically turbulent as Spain. During the 19th-century Napoleonic Wars, Spain was invaded by France and then-Spanish-king Ferdinand VII was taken prisoner. The Spanish people engaged in guerrilla-style resistance to their invaders, fighting to liberate their king and their country, but also fighting to establish a more democratic form of government. The rebels adopted a constitution that created an elected government and guaranteed important freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Once the French were beaten and their king was freed in 1814, Ferdinand VII repealed this constitution that he had never agreed to anyway and began ruling as an absolute monarch.

This was the beginning of more than a century of political turmoil punctuated by numerous revolutions and civil wars. During this time, the pro-monarchy factions fought the pro-democracy factions, a dynastic dispute arose over the succession to the throne, and numerous radical groups such as anarchists and communists gained significant support among the Spanish people. The royal family was at one point forced into exile only to return seven years later. At one point, an unborn baby became king of Spain. At another, Spain became so desperate for political peace that the government deliberately set up a system of voter fraud to ensure that power alternated between liberals and conservatives every few years. Spain was briefly a military dictatorship, and twice decided to get rid of the monarchy altogether and become a republic. On top of all of this, two Spanish regions, Catalonia and the Basque country, were making demands for independence during this time.

At last, these political struggles climaxed in the 1930s with the Spanish Civil War, a brutal and bloody affair that pitted a republican government that was democratically elected but dominated by socialists and communists against right-wing nationalists who were inspired by fascism and led by Francisco Franco. Both sides were supported by foreign armies and mercenaries, who used the war as a sort of “practice” for the upcoming World War II. Both sides are known to have committed horrendous atrocities, such as slaughtering civilians. Eventually, Franco won, in part because he enjoyed the support of Nazi Germany and in part because his opponents were often just as busy fighting each other as they were fighting him.

Under Franco, there was only one political party, the “Falange”, and all trade unions that were not under its control were banned. Franco was known to personally sign the death warrants of his opponents. He tried to promote Spanish nationalism by forcing everyone to like what he liked (such as bullfighting, flamenco, and the Catholic Church) and hate what he hated (such as feminism and the use of languages that were not Spanish). In spite of his brutality and Nazi ties, though, during the Cold War he was an ally of the United States.

As Franco grew older, the question of who would take over when he died became increasingly important. Many of the people who had supported Franco’s rise to power in the civil war were monarchists, who wanted to see a king on the throne again. Although Franco had numerous Spanish royals living in exile to choose from, owing once again to those dynastic disputes from the 19th century, he settled on a young prince named Juan Carlos de Borbón.

Juan Carlos as Prince image from Wikipedia

Juan Carlos as a prince prior to taking the Spanish throne

Born in Rome, Juan Carlos was allowed to study in Spain and eventually served in the Spanish army under Franco. In public, the prince claimed to be a true supporter of Franco and his rule, so the dictator trusted him. What Franco didn’t know was that the prince was also secretly communicating with opponents of the regime.

As the aging dictator grew ill, Juan Carlos started assuming more and more responsibility, and when Francisco Franco eventually died in 1975, Juan Carlos was proclaimed King of Spain. At first, the government was still controlled by Franco’s supporters, but he was able to gain the support of Adolfo Suarez, a former key player in Franco’s regime who was able to push through legislation legalizing other political parties besides the Falange and lifting restrictions on free speech, free press, and the trade unions. In 1977, free elections were held, with pro-democracy parties winning the most seats and Franco’s Falange winning less than 1% of the votes. The following year, the king signed a new, democratic constitution.

These changes offended and upset hardliner Franco supporters in the army, who decided in 1981 to do something about it. They attempted to overthrow the young democracy in a military coup, but King Juan Carlos thwarted their plans. He told the civil service not to obey the mutinous soldiers’ orders, and then went on national television to condemn the coup. This was enough to turn the people and the military against the coup. Unable to accomplish anything except look bad, the coup plotters surrendered.

By 1982, Spain’s transition to democracy was complete when a socialist political party won that year’s elections, returning to power for the first time since the civil war. Since then, Spain has functioned much like Europe’s other constitutional monarchies, with the King and royal family mainly serving a symbolic role while democratically-elected officials make the actual decisions. In the decades since Franco’s death, Spain’s thousands of monuments to the dictator have been slowly dismantled, one by one, and recognition has been given for his many victims.

Yet not all has been well for the Spanish royals over the years. In 2012, while most ordinary Spanish citizens were gripped by the Great Recession, high unemployment, and a major financial meltdown, they learned that their king had been on a safari in Africa hunting elephants. Even more recently, his daughter, Princess Cristina is under investigation for tax fraud, and her husband has been accused of embezzlement.

In light of these scandals, many Spaniards are calling for a referendum to abolish the monarchy and return to a republic. Meanwhile, the Spanish region of Catalonia has been agitating for independence. In spite of this, the new king’s accession was greeted by cheering crowds in the streets of Madrid. Felipe VI has been groomed for the succession for the past few years, gradually taking over more and more royal duties from his father. He certainly has some big shoes to fill and some major challenges ahead as he assumes the crown.