A referendum is of the essence

2 min

On Monday the King Emeritus, Juan Carlos, informed his son and successor, King Felipe, that he intended to move abroad “given the public impact of certain past events” in his private life. He was referring, euphemistically, to the ongoing investigation into the cash he had stashed away in a Swiss bank account and he had allegedly received from contract commissions and other shady business dealings. The reputational damage endured by King Juan Carlos is so huge and has been going on for so long that at the moment it might be difficult to fully grasp the historical implications of this news. The same monarch who, not even ten years ago, was regarded as one of the masterminds of Spain’s political transition [after General Franco’s death] and hailed as the saviour of Spanish democracy in the obscure 1981 military coup, the same king whose approval ratings were off the charts, is now having to leave Spain to dodge the accusations of corruption, in disgrace and disrepute.

All it has taken for the idyllic image of the King Emeritus —crafted over the years— to come tumbling down is for some media to shake off the censorship and dump the prevailing spirit of loyalty that for years kept a gag on reports about the Spanish royals —one day this sad chapter in the history of Spanish journalism will need to be studied in detail— plus a Swiss prosecutor who had the guts to probe the source of Juan Carlos’ cash.

Any attempt to separate the former king’s private affairs from his reign is bound to fail because such a distinction is impossible in a figure that is, in itself, institutional by nature. A monarch’s financial affairs are, as the classics would put it, a state matter because the survival of a monarchy in a democracy depends only on the consent of its subjects. Failing that, the institution itself starts to wobble.

For that same reason it is unrealistic to assume that the downfall of his father will leave King Felipe unscathed. You cannot build a high enough wall between the father and his son because the very essence of the monarchy is that it is a hereditary office, where the heir takes on the legacy of his predecessor in the Bourbon house. We would have to go back all the way to the 19th century to find a Bourbon monarch whose reign didn’t come to a humiliating end.

At the moment Spain’s political class is faced with an extremely serious dilemma: it can either look the other way and pretend nothing has happened or it can rise to the challenge and put the question to the Spanish people so they can vote whether they wish to keep the monarchy or not. In Catalonia we have had a taste of the Spanish rulers’ aversion to referendums and all the State’s structures will undoubtedly come together to shield the Crown, which they regard as the current regime’s best line of defence. However, their efforts will bear no fruit because the younger generations have long felt unbound by the 1978 pacts and a monarchy that was reinstated by a dictator who hated the Republic and everything it stood for.