How big a role can royalty play in forging a national sense of purpose and destiny? One might have asked that question 39 years ago, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco chose to make the dashing young scion of Spain’s former ruling family, Juan Carlos, his successor as head of state. Now, four decades later, few Spaniards would dispute the idea that King Juan Carlos played a key role in preserving national unity while establishing a new parliamentary democracy. But the Spain that Juan Carlos, who announced his intention to abdicate yesterday, will leave to his son, Crown Prince Felipe, is hardly thriving.
Still reeling from the 2008 global economic crisis, struggling against the strictures of the eurozone, and seeking to appease Basque and Catalan separatist movements, some Spaniards are hoping that royalty can again come to the rescue. Others aren’t so sure, and want a chance to vote on whether the monarchy still has a place in 21st-century Spain. A referendum is a good idea, but Felipe seems well-positioned to prevail. And Spain is clearly in the market for fresh hope.
The 76-year-old Juan Carlos carried an almost spotless image for most of his tenure, earning Spaniards’ respect after quelling an attempted coup in 1981. But recent scandals — such as a luxury safari trip to Botswana at the height of the recession, constant adultery rumors, and corruption allegations involving his daughter and son-in-law — contributed to a significant decline in his popularity. At 46 years old and an imposing 6 feet 5 inches tall, Felipe has been impressively untouched by scandals: He enjoys the highest approval rating among royal family members.
But Felipe, who studied international affairs at Georgetown University, will be dealing with a potentially big challenge as anti-monarchy sentiment grows, according to several opinion polls. Spanish ministers will be holding a special meeting to discuss the succession process, as Spain has no clear law regulating abdication. Protests and marches were planned in Madrid and other cities for Monday evening, demanding that voters get to decide whether to crown what would be Felipe IV. The youth unemployment rate is still around 55 percent, and more than a million people haven’t had a job since 2010, according to a report by Spain’s National Statistics Institute.
But just last week, the International Monetary Fund declared that “Spain has turned the corner,” in its annual report on the country’s economy. So perhaps it is more than fitting that Felipe will now likely find himself taking office at a transformative time. One can only hope that Felipe’s ascent will mark a break with the past, just as his father’s did when he ushered the country into the post-Franco era.