King Juan Carlos’ Annus Horribilus

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Long held up as a paradigm of modern monarchy for his historic role in bringing Spain to democracy and prosperity, King Juan Carlos has recently run into a spate of troubles that some are now referring to 2007 as the monarch’s very own annus horribilus. The turnabout in royal fortunes has been swift as it was only in May that Spaniards voted the King the “greatest Spaniard of all time”. Since the King’s heroic stand against the attempted coup d’etat of February 1981, the monarchy has been largely above criticism. Whilst that reflects the respect and widespread support for the monarchy, the institution will face a difficult transition after Juan Carlos’ death. It was Spain’s rather anachronistic royal press laws that set matters in motion. The legal action against the two cartoonists – who theoretically faced up to two years imprisonment for damaging the image of the monarchy – acted as the catalyst for antimonarchical feeling.

The cartoonists were making a commentary on the government’s plan to give parents 2,500 euros for every newborn child. The offending cartoon depicted Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia in a sexual position, with the Prince saying: “Do you realize? If you end up pregnant . . . this will be the closest thing to working I’ve ever done in my life!” Cartoonist Manel Fontedevila described the case as “ridiculous . . . We shouldn’t be here for this stupid thing”. The ruling may be appealed, and many favour overhauling the laws protecting the monarchy as they not only restrict press freedom but also end up doing more harm to the institution they are meant to protect. The first signs of a wider reaction came when Catalans burnt photographs of the King in their campaign for independence.

The antimonarchical mood was added to by a right wing commentator breaking the unspoken taboo by criticising the royal family and opening up a debate on the future of the monarchy itself. King Juan Carlos then took an unusual step by stepping into the debate directly to defend constitutional monarchy, saying it had helped guarantee “the longest period of stability and prosperity that Spain has ever experienced under democratic rule.” Constitutional though it is, the monarchy has been treated with great deference over the years, and to the younger generation this seems increasingly anachronistic. The underlying tension for the monarchy stems from the political role it still plays and the sometimes fractious relations between Spain’s various regions pushing for autonomy, or possibly full independence. In this area the monarch’s role as a unifying figure is widely approved of by many but equally resented by those who see the country as over-centralised. The King ran into further controversy over a visit to two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. Ceuta and Melilla are both claimed by Morocco. (Extract from?Royalty Magazine Vol. 20/07)