Spain’s monarchy faces challenges as new era dawns

Francisco Franco died in 1975 thinking that the future of Spain was wrapped up “good and tidy.” I’ve never believed the theory that the caudillo prepared a post-mortem transition to democracy.

Franco was a military man, convinced that the “familial demons” of separatism and anarchy would inevitably lead Spaniards to catastrophe, unless a strong hand were there to prevent it.

Fortunately, Juan Carlos, the young Bourbon, educated and hand-picked by Franco to continue his authoritarian regime, had a different idea. He knew it was possible to reign over a democratic nation if the crown was subordinate to the constitution and parliament, as was the norm in northern Europe.

The monarch wasted no time. With the help of the Cortés, the bicameral parliament, the king recruited Adolfo Suárez as prime minister, or chief of government, while he remained chief of state.

Suárez was the ideal negotiator in the quest for a change that seemed impossible. Through cajoling and arm-twisting (because the task wasn’t easy), Francoites were turned into democrats, the socialists abandoned Marxism, the communists renounced Leninism, the Basques and Catalonians put their nationalistic jingoism on hold and the army became subordinate to the civilian leaders — except for the limited putschist spasm of 1981. Even the Catholic Church blessed the metamorphosis, and everyone accepted the monarchy.

Juan Carlos — the heir of a dynasty that was discredited in the eyes of Spaniards, twice overthrown by a society that neither loved nor respected the royal family, the holder of spurious power arbitrarily imposed by Franco — needed all of them so he could reign with moral legitimacy (he had the political legitimacy). And everyone needed Juan Carlos to fill a space in a democratic order that blossomed miraculously in barely three years.

The transaction worked out just fine, at least for a while. The Spaniards, as has been said a thousand times, did not become monarchists but “JuanCarlists.”

Almost the entire country thanked the king for the establishment of democracy and his forceful attitude when several army officers tried to overthrow the government by force in 1981. The consensus was that without Juan Carlos’ guardianship and his prestige among the armed forces, the transition to democracy would have been interrupted.

That first transition lasted for 39 years, a little longer than Francoism. During that period, with hits and misses, the big parties governed in the national or regional spheres, alone or in coalition, and the institutions functioned relatively well. The only factor still to be tested was the transmission of authority within the monarchy.

That has just happened. With the abdication of Juan Carlos and the ascent to the throne of his son, who will rule as Felipe VI with Letizia as queen, the cycle closes and a second stage begins.

The priorities are different today: to propitiate the creation of jobs, which means nurturing a business climate; to combat corruption; to deal constructively with Basque and Catalonian separatism, if that is possible; and to revitalize the monarchy, at present devalued by the economic scandals of the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarín, and by the rather frivolous behavior of the king himself, who went to Africa with “a lady friend” to hunt elephants in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

The huge task that Felipe and Letizia will face from Day One of their rule is to convert the Spaniards disenchanted with the king into monarchists convinced of the usefulness of an institution that connects them with their ancient national history and is part of the collective identity of nations such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, as well as in Scandinavia.

The two have the talent, training, virtues and sympathy they need to consolidate the monarchy. But the institution must function with transparency and efficiency to earn the respect of a society still struggling to improve its quality of life.

Juan Carlos’ prestige grew while Spain prospered and plummeted when the economy stumbled. Felipe and Letizia will soon be the monarchs of Spain. They are full of good intentions, but it will be up to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his successors to govern well, so that the monarchy may be upheld.

In 1981, the king saved democracy. Today, democracy must save the monarchy.

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