Spanish people owe King Carlos a debt of gratitude

Jun. 08, 2014 @ 04:25 PM

Spanish King Juan Carlos made the right decision to abdicate his throne. 

The 76-year-old long-time king suffers both from visibly ailing health and a plummeting approval rating. Of late, family members of his have been linked to economic and political corruption. And a 2012 elephant-hunting expedition to Botswana -- during which the king broke his leg -- didn’t help either, given its appearance as an offensive luxury during some lean years in Spain.

And yet, the Spanish people owe King Carlos a debt of gratitude.

Juan Carlos twice played a crucial role in securing democracy -- however imperfect -- in today’s Spain.  Franco was still in power in 1969 when I first visited Spain as a tourist. Madrid seemed grey, poor and claustrophobic.  Even in more open Barcelona, signs in bars warned customers not to sing, lest they infringe on moral and political codes.  

Juan Carlos had been groomed by Franco to succeed him and prolong his authoritarian system on the dictator’s death. Instead, when the deceased Franco’s deputies proclaimed him king in 1975, Juan Carlos actively facilitated the transition to democracy.  

Within three years, political parties and clandestine unions were legalized, a general political amnesty brought exiles back home, some military leaders were retired, democratic elections took place and Juan Carlos signed a new Constitution that made him a constitutional monarch of only limited, symbolic power.  Democracy was still fragile, however, thanks to economic problems, weakness in the governing coalition, pressure for autonomy or independence from the Basque and Catalonian regions, attacks by the Basque separatists ETA, and resistance from high military officers.

Juan Carlos’ most dramatic moment came on Feb. 23, 1981, when a group of paramilitary guards occupied the parliament building in Madrid in a dramatic coup attempt ultimately quashed by Juan Carlos’s forces. 

I was in Madrid then on a Fulbright dissertation scholarship, and our son and daughter, then 10 and 6, were studying in Spanish schools.   Late that afternoon, I was home with them, half watching Plaza Sesamo on television when its sound was drowned out by the blaring sirens of police cars streaming down our narrow street. A banner flitted once across the TV screen, saying machine-gun armed Guardia Civil troops had occupied the Parliament building and were firing shots. The police were speeding toward the Cortes, where deputies were assembled to elect a new prime minister. 

No one slept that night until Juan Carlos appeared on TV about midnight, in military uniform, asking for calm and saying he had ordered all necessary measures to maintain constitutional order, in accord with the Constitution approved by the Spanish people. 

Juan Carlos’ role in defusing that last serious threat to democracy brought him widespread support in Spain. Rumors do linger that the king supported the attempted coup, but I find them no more credible than the conspiracy stories that swarm around JFK’s assassination and similar political tragedies. 

King Carlos is be succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Felipe, 46. But today, many Spaniards are calling for a national referendum on the future of monarchy. It’s a movement rooted in convincing data: The monarchy itself has lost popularity, from a 75 percent approval rating 20 years ago to just 37 percent in 2014.

I’m no monarchist. I’d be glad to see the end of the expensive British monarchy. But the Spanish monarchy hasn’t generally been known for such over-the-top spending. My family once went skiing in the same resort as the royal family, who took their turns in lift lines with the rest of us.  

If today’s Spaniards, most born after the transition, decide their cost is now too high and that Juan Carlos’ abdication should be the end of the line for this monarchy, so be it.  I will still believe he has done his job well. 

Margaret Greer is a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Duke University.