Spanish king abdicates: circuit breaker or fuse igniter?

By Dick Nichols

June 9, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, an earlier version of this article appeared at Green Left Weekly -- On Monday, June 2, as news spread of the abdication of the Spanish king, Juan Carlos of Borbon, a strange rustling sound could be heard across Barcelona. Hard to work out at first, it soon became clear what it was. It was the city—the capital of Catalonia—laughing.

In the city’s thousands of bars, people were hooting with glee at the wave of tweets that the king’s decision to abdicate in favour of his son, Felipe, was provoking. One showed a melancholy Prince Charles of Wales emitting the thought bubble: “Even the bloody Spanish do this better than us.”

Another, probably the favourite in my local bar of young and old unemployed, read: “With Mariano Rajoy [Spanish prime minister] in charge, even the king gets to lose his job.”

That tweet was—perhaps unintentionally—perceptive. The final timing of the abdication, which Juan Carlos had insistently denied was his intention, came after consultation between the conservative People’s Party (PP) prime minister, social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) opposition leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and the king himself. Indeed, Rajoy came on television to announce Juan Carlos’s departure before the king gave his own farewell address.

The abdication, which will see the king’s son Felipe installed as king on June 19, came just eight days after the May 25 European election results, which have severely shaken the bipartisan system propping up Spain’s political and economic establishment. Together the PP and the PSOE mustered only 49.5% of the vote, while the vote for left forces, both at the level of the Spanish state and in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, soared.

The combined vote of the Plural Left, based around the United Left (IU), and newcomer Podemos (“We can”) exceeded the PSOE’s in 24 of the country’s 40 largest cities. When the votes for the green party (Equo) and various centre-left and left nationalist forces are added in, the national alternative left total exceeded the PSOE’s (23.9% to 23%).


The king’s departure topped a week of other “abdications”. The first to fall on his sword was PSOE leader Rubalcaba himself, who convened an emergency congress of the PSOE for July and announced that he would not be standing for re-election.

He was followed by Patxi Lopez, general secretary of the PSOE’s Basque Country affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Euskadi (PSE), and Roberto Jiménez, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Navarra (PSN).

The rise of left forces like IU and Podemos set off alarm bells within the Spanish establishment: if the embattled parliamentary monarchy that replaced the Franco dictatorship was to maximise its survival chances, the already embarrassing king would have to be whipped off the political stage.

Yet, given the intensity of popular anger and contempt, it is entirely possible that this “circuit breaker” will turn into its opposite—the detonator of a vast mass movement that speeds up the demise of Spain’s pseudo-democratic regime by demanding that the people get to vote on whether they want to continue with the monarchy or not.

On the very evening of the day the king announced his abdication, the main squares of between 70 and 80 Spanish cities and towns were full of people—young and old, unionists and indignados, pensioners and students--demanding their right to decide the country’s form of state.

That movement and the pro-republican political forces that support it, is already dramatising the vast gulf between the political balance in the Spanish parliament and the real balance of social sentiment. And the main victim of that contradiction will not be the PP, but the ostensibly republican PSOE.

The royal road to ruin

How did the Spanish monarchy, which for three decades easily rated as the country’s most popular institution, sink to the point where it now scores less than four out of 10 in opinion polls? Juan Carlos is not yet the “mad, blind, despised and dying” George III of Shelley’s poem England in 1819, but he’s not far off.

The king, whom dictator Francisco Franco first nominated as his replacement in 1969 but who swapped sides when he sniffed the change in political wind direction during the final years of the dictatorship, overcome his initial unpopularity in 1981, six years after Franco’s death and at the end of a “transition to democracy” fraught with political tension, mainly because of the conflict between the armed forces and civil guard and the nationalist movement in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi and Navarra).

Up until then Juan Carlos had been cold shouldered by the Francoists as a traitor and spurned by republicans and masses of ordinary people as a creature of the dictator, even while for many the monarchy was a necessary element of stability in the turbulent transition to a parliamentary democracy. This culminated with the adoption of the 1978 constitution of “neither winners or losers” (that is, the price of parliamentary democratic forms was that the criminals of Francoism got off scot-free).

That attitude changed after Juan Carlos appeared on television to disown a February 23, 1981, coup attempt by elements in the military and Civil Guard. The perception was cultivated that the king—soon to be called “the people’s king”—had saved democracy, even though his actual role in the affair has yet to be established (the archives covering it are still secret).

The three-decade popularity of the monarchy, coinciding with economic growth that supposedly turned Spain into “a normal modern European state”, was also helped by an informal “hands off” agreement with the media and by Juan Carlos’s matey and avuncular manner. The love affair lasted until around 2007.

Since then, however, the effective end of media indifference and the uncovering of a chain of scandals have driven the popularity of the Spanish royal house through the floor. Leaving aside Juan Carlos’ “friendships” with various aristocratic women (which have probably done his popularity no harm at all in many circles) the king and the royal house have been caught in a number of sordid imbroglios:

  • In July 2007, the National Court ordered the pulping of the entire run of the satirical magazine Jueves, with a cover showing prince Felipe having sex with his wife and saying, “if you get pregnant, this will be the most work I’ll have done in my life”. That ban only stimulated the desire of journalists to uncover the real goings-on in the royal court.

  • In 2010, the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, was shown to have set up an institute that flogged off sports and cultural conventions carrying the royal brand name to regional (especially PP) governments at an exhorbitant price, with tax-evasion measures thrown in as a bonus. Urdangarin has been charged with misuse of public funds, fraud, tax evasion and perverting the course of justice. Cristina, the king’s daughter and Urdagarin’s wife, has been questioned by the investigating magistrate as to how much she knew about this scam, and the establishment is presently waiting nervously to see if she too will be charged.

  • In April 2012, Spain learned that the Juan Carlos had fractured his hip. Only later did it emerge that this had happened while he was in Botswana hunting elephants. A photo of the king standing proudly before a dead elephant revolted millions, leading to the World Wildlife Fund’s Spanish branch removing him as its honorary president. When it finally sank into the royal brain that the affair was damaging the monarchy, Juan Carlos mumbled: “I’m very sorry, I made a mistake, it won’t happen again.”

  • In March 2013, the anti-monarchist right-wing daily El Mundo revealed that the inheritance of €6 million that Juan Carlos had received from his father Don Juan was held in three Swiss bank accounts. When opposition MPs asked what the Spanish treasury was doing about what looked like a blatant case of tax evasion, they were told that the law did not allow disclosure of such information. Similar requests about the king’s shareholdings in the Spanish businesses whose products he is charged with promoting—especially to the absolutist regimes of the Arab world like Morocco and Saudi Arabia—have also been declined.

  • In September 2013, the carefully cultivated myth that the king was scrupulously non-partisan and “king of all the Spanish” finally evaporated when the mayor of the Catalan city of Martorell revealed that Juan Carlos had button-holed him at what was supposed to be a purely ceremonial gathering, yelling: “You, damn what you’ve organised in Catalonia, getting people out onto the streets with trickery.” This was a reference to the 400-kilometre-long human chain for a Catalan’s right to decide its political future, which involved up to 1.5 million people on September 11, Catalonia’s national day (Diada). After a similar outpouring for the 2012 Diada the king had gone on the royal web site with a plea not to “divide forces” or “chase chimeras”.

All of this, combined with declining health and a string of minor incidents (like slapping a royal chauffeur in the face for parking in the wrong place) brought Juan Carlos to the point of incurable disrepute. In recent years unspeakable things have been happening, like the booing of prince Felipe and his wife Letizia at a Barcelona concert.

An April poll of 2000 interviewees by the Sondea Institute showed that while 85% believe the royal family was involved in cases of corruption, 55% still support Felipe becoming king, while 43.6% oppose any continuation of the monarchy at all.

A June 8 Metroscopia poll showed 49% in favour of the monarchy continuing under Felipe and 36% in favour of a republic, with PSOE voters split 46% to 43%. However, when asked if a referendum should be held “at some time, so that the Spanish can say if they prefer Spain to continue being a monarchy”, 62%, including 68% of PSOE voters, said yes.

Such is the background against which a majority of the royal court had been trying for months to convince a stubborn Juan Carlos to hand the baton to his son. It seems highly probable that the reluctant monarch was finally persuaded by the stark reality, revealed by the European elections, that there is no guarantee that the next national Spanish election will produce a pro-monarchist majority to underpin the survival of the Borbon dynasty.

Felipe the Brief?

The panicked Spanish elites are now placing an enormous burden on the shoulders of prince Felipe to become King Felipe VI on June 19. What qualifications does he bring to the job?

The essence of the mainstream media and gossip magazine blather about the prince is as follows. He is tall, handsome, easy going and relaxed in any social milieu—“even sceptics are charmed”. He is “modern”, marrying for love, not royal connection. His wife, former TV journalist Letizia Ortiz, is a commoner (“granddaughter of a taxi-driver”) who is “known to speak her mind”. Besides having done the usual princely thing of serving in the army, navy and air force, Felipe is the first Borbon monarch since the dynasty assumed the Spanish throne in 1700 to have a university degree. He is fluent in English and French, and has good Catalan. He has not the slightest hint of association with the corrupt practices of his brother-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin.

In normal circumstances such a CV would make Felipe a certain candidate for successful monarch, especially given that he makes a point of always speaking in Catalan when in Catalonia, winning quite a few brownie points in a society where the upper classes have usually spoken Spanish. (His attempts to speak Basque are best passed over in polite silence.)

Unfortunately for Felipe and his backers, these are not normal times, and he is already being called “Felipe the Brief” in certain cynical circles. After six years of crisis the monarchy is seen by many as the quintessence of a corrupt and untouchable economic and political regime that has brought misery to millions. The appeal to the monarchy’s democratic credentials and to the 1978 constitution that legalised it as integral to the Spanish state just doesn’t wash with many of the 68% of people now living who didn’t get to vote on that magna carta.

As for Catalonia, in the 300th anniversary of the siege and overthrow of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession, it will take a lot more than charming royal platitudes delivered in Catalan to even begin to stop the vast tide of support for a Catalan right to decide (also confirmed by the European election vote).

Nor, on a lighter note, does it help that the last Borbon Felipe (Felipe V) led the destruction of Catalan and Valencian rights in that conflict, a role that is recorded in the Valencian town of Xàtiva by his portrait being permanently hung upside down in the local art gallery.

The latest evidence of establishment nervousness in this extremely delicate moment when Felipe VI must be “bedded down” was the withdrawal by its publishers of the front cover of the latest Jueves, provoking the resignation of the satirical magazine’s most longstanding cartoonists.

Another was the visible apoplexy of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with the decision of the right-nationalist Catalan governing party, Convergence and Union (CiU), to abstain on the parliamentary legislation formalising the ascension of Felipe as Spanish monarch.

A broadening movement

In this critical political phase, which opened three years ago with the explosion onto the streets of the 15M (indignado) movement, the demand for a referendum on the monarchy has enormous force. Like the demand for Catalonia’s right to decide, it makes people feel that here--at last and at least—is something that gives us a say in our future, a weapon against “you who don’t represent us”.

There are already signs that this movement for the right to decide on Spain’s form of state might take the “Catalan road” on an all-Spanish scale. For example, like the municipal movement supporting a Catalan right to decide, local councillors from pro-republican parties have already been moving that their council formally express support for a national vote on the continuation of the monarchy.

The council of the Galician town Teo, run by the left-nationalist force ANOVA, led the way when it adopted such a resolution the day after the king’s announcement of abdication. Teo was followed by the council of Pamplona, the capital of Navarra.

The Pamplona motion was supported by the United Left, the Basque left-nationalist coalition EH Bildu, the Navarra nationalist NaBai and even by the Socialist Party of Navarra (the PSOE in Navarra). In similar votes in other councils social-democratic councilors have also voted in favour.

The strength of the sentiment is increasing tension within a PSOE already shaken to the core by its sad result on May 25. Local PSOE leaders, sensing the sentiment among their remaining support base, are supporting the call for a monarchy-or-republic referendum.

To date, three national PSOE MPs, including the former mayor of San Sebastian, have demanded a conscience vote on the abdication legislation that will come before parliament on June 11. However, Rubalcaba and the central PSOE leadership remain unwavering in their “institutional loyalty”.

The pro-monarchist parties, including the “rebellious” Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD), will have an 86% majority in that parliamentary vote, guaranteeing that the prince will become Felipe VI. The real question, however, is the political price that they will pay for a position that puts them in the same space as the Spanish chief prosecutor Eduardo Torres-Dulce. His comment on calls for a referendum was that “what isn’t in the constitution doesn’t exist”.

To dramatise the gulf between parliament and society and to increase pressure on PSOE MPs, the Plural Left (the United Left, Initiative for Catalonia and the Aragonist Union) and the Mixed Group (containing the Basque left-nationalist Amaiur and the Catalan centre-left Republican Left of Catalunya) have forced an open vote on the transition legislation. This means that every PSOE MP will have to stand and one by one make clear their support for the continuation of the monarchy

The Plural Left will also move an amendment to the entire legislation, calling under section 92 of the constitution for a consultative referendum on the continuation of the monarchy.

It’s not in the present climate that the ruling Catalan party CiU, which has been a completely reliable ally of the PP and PSOE on the core issues of Spanish state structures in the past, will abstain. It will be joined by the usually reliable Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), presently ruling in Euskadi but in increasing danger of being overtaken by the left-nationalist EH Bildu.

Six critical months

In 1981, Juan Carlos entrenched the Borbon monarchy in Spain by opposing the February 23 military coup, opening the way to a three-decade-long rule. In 2014, a political earthquake on a similar scale may well be needed to save Felipe VI and the monarchy itself.

The big headache for the establishment’s political game planners is finding a threat from which the new king can be portrayed as helping save “Spanish democracy”. The potential candidates are not being cooperative—the politically defeated Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) is disarming while the Catalan nationalist process is scrupulously democratic and providing an inspiring example of how a nation can fight for its right to self-determination.

In Catalonia, November 9, the date set for the Catalan consultation, is psychologically set in stone and if, as seems probable, the constitutional court rules it unconstitutional, the affront to Catalan national sentiment will only deepen hatred of the Spanish state. The result will be to practically guarantee victory for pro-independence forces at the next poll in Catalonia, whether at the 2015 municipal elections or a Catalan regional election called early.

Such a scenario would recall the context in which Alfonso XIII, the last Spanish king before Juan Carlos, was driven from the throne—after republican forces won an overwhelming majority in municipal elections of 1931.

The only action that would have even a remote chance of slowing the Catalan juggernaut would be an agreement between the PP and the PSOE to change the Spanish constitution to at least partially meet Catalan demands, with any proposal being voted on by the Catalans alone. Such an outcome seems highly improbable at the moment, not only because of the PP’s own visceral Spanish centralism and its nervousness about losing support to forces like UPyD, but also because those trying to negotiate a “third way” out of the conflict—the PSOE and the conciliationist wing of CiU—disagree on whether any “new federalism” should involve the whole structure of the Spanish state or merely allow a special case treatment for Catalonia.

The immediate reaction to the king’s abdication and the forthcoming parliamentary vote has brought into sharp focus the outlines of the only possible alternative alliance for government in the Spanish state, one that brings together those all-Spanish left, left-nationalist, green and left-republican forces pledged to support the right of national self-determination of Spain’s peoples

On June 5, the United Left and seven other left organisations, including the Anticapitalist Left and green party Equo, initiated a call, Referendum Now!, open for endorsement by all forces that support the right to decide and proposing an ongoing wave of mobilisations. These began on June 7, with demonstrations in 40 towns and cities in the Spanish state, continuing the outpourings on the day the king announced his departure.

On June 8, the Via Vasca for a Basque right to decide, a 123-kilometre human chain linking together Durango in Biscay province with Pamplona, gave a dramatic visual presence to the struggle for the self-determination of the Basque regions within the Spanish state (Euskadi and Navarra).

Will these powerful events, following on the king’s abdication, be decisive steps down the road that leads to the end of the monarchy and the beginning of a Third Spanish Republic? The next six months of struggle will tell.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent for Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. He is based in Barcelona.]