In his classic treatise The Spirit of Law Montesquieu sorted good and bad governments into two categories of political system: monarchical and despotic. In the ensuing 272 years Spain has had its share of monarchs who had a chance —or not— to prove their usefulness as guarantors of the social contract that a democratic society of free citizens in the 21st century represents.
This week marks the 6th anniversary of King Felipe’s ascension to the Spanish throne following his father’s entertaining abdication. Critics and supporters of the House of Bourbon have taken stock of Spain’s political system and the precariousness of its constitutional monarchy today. Despite the lack of official data —it is no coincidence that the CIS, Spain’s public pollster, won’t release any—, we do know that the king’s approval rating in Catalonia has hit rock bottom. The Catalan public opinion is highly critical of the Spanish monarchy and the CEO, the Catalan government’s polling body, reports that 71.2 per cent of Catalans would rather live in a republic than in a monarchy (14.4 per cent).
The official narrative, whereby a supposedly impeccable political transition —following General Franco’s death— brought us a stable political system that is respectful of Spain’s diverse regions, has been shattered. Likewise, the veil of silence surrounding King Juan Carlos’ personality has been suddenly lifted, putting an end to the state of opinion that prevailed for decades, propped up by the king’s supporters, who praised his alleged contribution to democratic stability, and the monarch’s own constructed public image that presented him as an approachable, likeable king.
Juan Carlos’ reputation is in tatters as far as most people are concerned, although he can still rely on his court of political and media supporters who have always been sympathetic with the perennial vices of Bourbon kings in history: namely, capricious womanising and helping themselves to the state coffers.
Marx wrote that “history repeats itself, first as a great tragedy, second as a sorry farce”. Spain’s incumbent head of state would do well to review his history notes and realise that, in a modern democracy, only the ballot affords auctoritas. Cutting his father loose once he was already being probed internationally does not discharge King Felipe of his responsibility.
On 14 April 1931, when King Alfonso XIII —Juan Carlos’ grandfather— fled to exile, street crowds could be heard shouting “Alirón, alirón, Alfonsito es un ladrón” [“Here we go, here we go, little Alfonso is a thief”]. Spanish author Valle-Inclán wrote that “the Spanish people have kicked out the last of the Bourbons, not because he was the king, but because he is a thief”. The ever-present confusion about whose cash it is. Today a Geneva prosecutor has pressed charges against lawyer Dante Canónica, Corinna Larsen (King Joan Carlos’ former mistress), and the Spanish king’s financial advisor, Arturo Fasana. Fasana was initially probed in the Gürtel graft scandal in Spain. They all stand accused of holding accounts in tax havens with funds from government contracts awarded to Spanish corporations by Saudi Arabia. The impending judicial action has forced Spain’s Supreme Court Prosecutor to investigate the commissions allegedly paid to King Juan Carlos, and now Corinna Larsen —who seems unwilling to be the scapegoat— is allegedly being threatened by the state’s security apparatus. As a matter of fact, one of the best-informed courtiers, journalist Jaime Peñafiel, has explained that Juan Carlos had set up his “bosom friend” and her son [from an earlier marriage] in a house only a few hundred yards from the king’s own Zarzuela palace [the monarch’s official residence in Madrid]. Pilar Urbano has written that Juan Carlos gathered his children to announce that he intended to divorce their mother, Sofía, and marry Corinna, which prompted his son Felipe to urge him to abdicate first (El Mundo, 20 June).
Reports about King Juan Carlos’ shady business dealings are hardly new, but they have been mostly ignored by media. In his book Adolfo Suárez, ambición y destino (Debate, 2009) author Gregorio Morán published a letter signed by King Joan Carlos and addressed to his “beloved brother” Mohammad Reza Pahlavi —the last Shah of Iran— on 22 July 1977 asking him to contribute ten million dollars so that Adolfo Suárez may “consolidate a centrist political coalition […] that supports the monarchy […] and preserves western civilisation and the established monarchies”. Morán also explains that in José García Abad’s biography of Adolfo Suárez (Adolfo Suárez. Una tragedia griega. Madrid, 2005) the author claims that “the cash donation mostly stayed in Zarzuela” and that “rather than being part of the history of Adolfo Suárez’s political party, the episode should more accurately be seen as an example of royal craftiness”. García Abad describes the mutual understanding between Adolfo Suárez and King Juan Carlos and how the King’s administrator, Manuel Prado y Colón de Carvajal, travelled to Saudi Arabia and agreed to a payment of one billion dollars.
Does a monarchic Spain stand any chance of regeneration? If we consider the country’s history, the answer would be no. Reformists tried to revive Spanish society after what they called the “1898 disaster” and spoke about the Spanish nation’s “prostration” following the loss of its colonies as the European empires consolidated their position. Yet today the oligarchy and local strongmen have not been fully replaced by education. In Spain any demands of regeneration have traditionally led to an unfair fiscal relationship and the imposition of patriotic values that are at odds with a large segment of Catalonia’s public opinion.
The king’s meddling in the political arena is not over, either. While for centuries the two parties that alternated in power —liberal and conservative— had protected the monarchy, the onset of a multi-party system and political fragmentation means the establishment is feeling seriously threatened.
If King Felipe wished to distance himself from his dad’s shady dealings, he has missed that train. He also made a tragic error of judgement with his TV speech on 3 October 2017 [apropos the Catalan independence referendum two days earlier]. He blew his chances of ending a tradition that is threatening to devour him.