Corruption scandal could spell end for Juan Carlos

Spain's King Juan Carlos. Picture: AP
Spain's King Juan Carlos. Picture: AP
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SUDDENLY it seems Spain is falling out of love with its monarch. King Juan Carlos has enjoyed his country’s love and respect over an almost four-decade reign.

But recently he appeared at a basketball game, only to be heckled and whistled at by his subjects.

The immediate cause is a corruption scandal engulfing his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, which has angered Spaniards during a time of crushing austerity. But the ageing Juan Carlos himself has seemed increasingly out of touch with his people as they try to keep afloat in Europe’s economic storm.

Mr Urdangarin, married to the 75-year-old king’s second daughter, Princess Cristina, is accused of using his position to embezzle several million euros in public contracts assigned to a non-profit foundation he set up.

The 45-year-old businessman, who denies any wrongdoing, faces questioning along with his wife’s personal secretary. He gives closed-door testimony today before an investigating magistrate.

Juan Carlos, whose health has been declining along with his reputation, and the Spanish monarchy are facing one of their biggest crises ever.

“There is no deep-seated admiration for the monarchy as an institution as you’ll find in the UK or in Holland,” said Tom Burns Maranon, who has written several books about Juan Carlos. “The whole thing is almost a personal loyalty to the king. If the king’s standing and reputation comes shooting down, then you’re in a very sticky position.”

The charismatic Juan Carlos, who took the throne in 1975 two days after the death of dictator Franco, is widely credited with helping the country usher in democracy – and with saving it by staring down an attempted coup in 1981.

Yet the stories of greed emerging from the Urdangarin case have deepened the sense that the royals are living large at the expense of a suffering nation. Juan Carlos was vilified last year after going on a luxurious African safari to hunt elephants while his subjects were being battered by economic woes and sky-high unemployment.

There is no major movement in Spain to eliminate the monarchy and restore a republican form of government. So far, only the leader of the regional Catalan Socialist Party has called openly for Juan Carlos to abdicate and allow his son, Crown Prince Felipe, to take the throne and bring the monarchy more in line with the 21st century.

A palace official said yesterday that Juan Carlos has no plans to abdicate and that no plan exists to fast track the succession of Felipe. But the sense of the king’s popularity propping up the monarchy – a phenomenon known as “juancarlismo” – appears to be fading. A January poll showed about half of Spaniards approved of the king – impressive but sharply down from the three-quarters support he enjoyed a year before.

The king’s health, meanwhile, has been a subject for concern over the past two years. He has had operations on both hips, a knee and for a benign lung tumour. On 3 March, he will undergo back surgery, the royal palace said on Thursday.

When Dutch Queen Beatrix, also 75, announced in January she would abdicate and pass the crown to her eldest son, some wanted the same in Spain. But experts say the monarchies in the two countries are very different. The Netherlands has a history of abdications for reasons of age, a move rare in Spain.