Misc 09/08/2020

Looking for the king emeritus

The fall into disgrace of the Spanish Transition king marks the end of an era

Esther Vera
4 min
Buscant l’emèrit

The fall into disgrace of the Spanish Transition king marks the end of an era. The self-deceit that characterises Spanish politics —and, often, Catalonia’s— might be useful to delay the political fallout, but will not avert it. We’ve not reached the top of the hill yet and we can’t see what lies beyond, but this crisis will bring in a new time and the former king’s escape to Abu Dhabi will force the PSOE to test the limits of what is acceptable to its electorate. The young man who restored the monarchy in Spain, under General Franco’s watchful gaze, and denied his own father the throne [to which he was rightfully entitled] showed enough of a survival instinct to entrust a pragmatic reformist [such as Adolfo Suárez] with the political leadership that facilitated the regime change and all the pacts involved. PM Adolfo Suárez and the other men who steered the political Transition —except Dolores Ibarruri, the main leaders were all men— firmly believed that change was necessary and the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing dictatorship were a very vivid memory. This afforded them the willingness to compromise —and there was no shortage of it—, which is the sort of glue that holds together the building blocks of any negotiation.

The idea of a new, European Spain as a shared dream came true in 1985, with Spain’s accession to the European Economic Community. However, the tension between the old and the new brought about by the Spanish transition was resolved with agreements that, years later, didn’t always turn out to be satisfactory. The Basque Country endured much bloodshed, but it built a political edifice, while Catalonia —led by Jordi Pujol— built an unsatisfactory form of home rule that Spain’s artificial regions watched with distrust and strove to keep up with. This artefact survived until PM José María Aznar won an outright majority at the polls and he decided to lead a regional regression and dispose of the constitutional spirit that had inspired a modicum of tolerance towards difference. We all know the rest of the story: the new Catalan charter was struck down by the Constitutional Court following an appeal lodged by the Partido Popular, the flagship party of Spain’s re-centralising forces; a non-binding independence vote was held on 9 November 2014, followed by an actual referendum on 1 October 2017 and a failed independence bid.

In the 1980s Juan Carlos successfully kept the military in check and he increasingly dedicated himself to his private affairs and business dealings like some sort of premium ambassador who cannot tell the difference between his own personal assets and the state’s coffers. He left politics in the hands of an elite of courtiers from nearly all the political parties who decided not to step on each other’s toes.

Juan Carlos went about his private affairs except in the case of Catalonia, which concerns the holiest of holies: Spain’s unity. In 2010 this led him to ignore the maxim which states that “the king reigns, but does not rule”, as well as his constitutional duty to play a “moderating” role (Article 56 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution). Recall the untimely letter posted on the Royal House’s website on 18 September 2012, shortly after the first massive pro-independence demonstration, as Spain was debating a hypothetical bailout by the EU, where the monarch wrote about the need to leave behind “dissent”, “illusions” and “wounds”. Two days before Catalan president Artur Mas was due to meet his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, to discuss a new fiscal deal, King Juan Carlos wrote that “this is not the time to poke into our essence or pointlessly debate the nature of what is threatening our co-existence model”.

This week King Juan Carlos surreptitiously fled Spain so he won’t be held to account apropos the source and destination of his finances, a matter that is currently being probed in Switzerland and by Spain’s Supreme Court. The king emeritus lost his survival instinct decades ago, persuaded as he was that he was untouchable, shielded by the excessive legal immunity afforded to him by the Spanish Constitution. To make matters worse, the fact that the current king’s father has eluded European justice by seeking shelter in an authoritarian Arab emirate is a joke that people of Spain will find in very poor taste.

The fall into disgrace of the Spanish Transition king marks the end of an era and Spain must decide whether it wishes to continue with the constitutional involution, disregarding several decades of peaceful co-existence —uncomfortable, but peaceful— in a country with a tragic history, or to embrace a reform of the constitution that is consistent with Spain’s reality and amends the institutional edifice.

The king demeritus

King Felipe is attempting to steady his reign by isolating his father and trying to limit Juan Carlos’s actions to his “private affairs” prior to abdicating. This general narrative might be successful with media, but Switzerland’s justice is probing facts that occurred after 2014 [when the king emeritus abdicated]. The monarchy is in itself a hereditary institution where the throne’s occupant personally succeeds his father and, therefore, it is difficult to draw a line between the individual and the institution.

Just like Juan Carlos’ handling of the 1981 attempted military coup struck a chord with most Spaniards who were eager to save their democracy, his son’s TV address on 3 October 2017 [condemning the Catalan independence vote two days earlier] resonated with those who support the idea of a homogenous, unified Spain. However, that same speech lost for the Spanish king the segment of Catalan people who still felt he could mediate in the conflict. Today the king’s top champions are the far right, the traditional right and the ruling PSOE, which has chosen to forget that the socialist party used to support republicanism, just like they used to be vaguely federalist.