King Juan Carlos Saved Spain's Democracy, but He Should Have Stepped Down Years Ago

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June 2 2014 3:59 PM

Why Juan Carlos Had to Go

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King Juan Carlos.

Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Though technically unrelated, an electoral landslide, a death, and an abdication all in the past few months seem together to mark the final end of an era in Spanish politics that began with the death of Francisco Franco in 1975.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Today’s news is that 76-year-old King Juan Carlos has abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Crown Prince Felipe. It’s been a rough few years for the Spanish monarchy. In 2012 the king provoked the ire of the austerity-wracked Spanish public, rare criticism from the traditionally deferential Spanish media, and outrage from animal lovers with a lavish elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in the company of German aristocrat Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, his frequent traveling companion.

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His daughter Cristina has been the subject of a criminal investigation—the first time that’s ever happened to a member of the royal family—in connection with her husband’s business dealings. The popularity of the monarchy has fallen to an all-time low, making the abdication a smart political move: Crown Prince Felipe and his wife, Letizia Ortiz, have been relatively untouched by the scandals and are among the more popular royals.

The ignoble end of Juan Carlos’ reign may detract from a fairly impressive legacy as the leader who confounded the expectations of critics by supporting the country’s peaceful transition to democracy.

Juan Carlos took the throne in 1975 after the death of Franco, who had groomed him for the position. While he had made some perfunctory statements about democracy as king-in-waiting, he was expected by many to keep ruling in the Francoist mold.

The first sign that he had something else in mind came in his coronation speech, when he promised to be "king of all Spaniards, without exception"—seemingly an effort to paper over the divisions that had been present in society since the Civil War.

In 1976 he surprised many by selecting a young relatively unknown bureaucrat named Adolfo Suárez as prime minister.

A mild-mannered conservative catholic from Franco’s party, Suárez seemed like any unlikely reformer, but in the 11 months that followed, he—with royal support—“abolished the National Movement, legalized political parties including the Communist Party, legalized trade unions, abolished the largely appointed parliament, allowed freedom of speech and assembly in an electoral campaign, and convoked partisan elections.” He became Spain’s first elected prime minister after Franco when elections were held in 1977.

In March he passed away, a little more than two months before the king who had appointed him left the throne.

Spain is still a rare example of a country that transitioned from dictatorship to democracy without violence or revolt, but it was a fragile, dangerous transition, threatened by both right-wing and left-wing terrorism as well as the remnants of Franco’s military leadership. In 1981 a coup by right-wing military officers threatened to overthrow Suarez’s government, and the king’s televised speech condemning “any actions or attitudes by persons who intend to interrupt the democratic process by force” deflated the coup and was one probably the high point of his reign.

Spain’s transition to democracy left a lot of unfinished business. Most of the crimes of the Franco era went unpunished—and there are still consequences for those who look too closely into them—but it’s also not hard to imagine a scenario under which the country tipped back into dictatorship or civil war.  

But as both these figures leave the stage, the political order they helped build also shows signs of unraveling. Since 1977 Spain has been, for the most part, a two-party state. The Socialist Party has represented the center left, while since the late 1980s the People’s Party, and before that the Democratic Center, have represented the center right.

Last week both parties were punished at the polls in European elections, taking less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time since the return to democracy.

It’s a mistake to read too much into European elections—populations tend to use them to register protest votes and then drift back to mainstream candidates for national elections—but the numbers here are particularly dramatic. It also seems significant that voters seem to have drifted more toward the anti-austerity leftist Podemos Party—an outgrowth of the indignados protests that predated the rise of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, rather than the kind of right-wing anti-immigrant parties that made gains in many other European countries. The country’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 26 percent, and 55 percent for youth.  

On top of that, Catalonia is experiencing a new wave of nationalism, with independence parties pushing for a referendum this fall.

Thankfully, after 35 years, Spain’s democracy doesn’t seem to be under threat, and Juan Carlos clearly deserves some credit for the fact that we can take that for granted today.

But even if for no other reason than symbolizing a new start, the king’s exit seems like a welcome move for Spain as well as the House of Bourbon. As for Juan Carlos' own legacy, he probably should have done this five years ago. If anything, his decline from respected national institution to embarassment is a pretty good argument for not having rulers-for-life.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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