News that Spain's King Juan Carlos will abdicate, handing the throne to his son, has resonated predominantly in the US as a reminder of that strange archaic fact of ongoing European monarchies. But this is a story as much about contemporary crises as it is about kings.
Under Juan Carlos, Spain moved from dictatorship to its current Eurocrisis-beleaguered democracy. The monarch has, during his four decades as the head of state, enjoyed immense popularity at times, and he is credited with smoothing Spain's shift to democracy in the 1970s after Franco.
It was not an attempted coup in 1981 that pushed Juan Carlos into retirement. Nor was it tensions with Catalan separatists and republicans in years past. No, it was, quite literally, the elephant in the room.
The elephant was very real — the spoils of a luxury hunting trip taken in 2012 to Botswana by the king in at the height of the European financial crisis. The optics couldn't be worse — a monarch calling for "exemplary behavior" from austerity-wrecked Spaniards the same week he is photographed posing in front of a felled elephant on an extravagant vacation.
Of course, one hunted elephant does not prompt the fall of Versailles. But Juan Carlos' inherited and immense privilege stood in uncomfortable juxtaposition with the skyrocketing unemployment in his country. The king's unpopularity was not a referendum on his character alone, or on his health and capacity to lead at 76-years-old after undergoing a string of operations in recent years. Rather, republican sentiment had gained ground. Forty percent of Spaniards were polled as desiring a republic — an unprecedented figure since the restoration of democracy in 1977-78. Today, tens of thousands of Spaniards filled streets and public squares to call for referendum on the possibility of a republic.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of Spaniards expressed the desire to see Juan Carlos abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Felipe — an internationally educated, pre-prepped monarch-to-be for some years. Juan Carlos' abdication, in the face of republicanism and rising Catalan separatist sentiment (with a constitutional crisis on the way), is really about saving the Spanish monarchy, not saving Spain. Spain continues to suffer. Youth unemployment loiters at around 50 percent, prompting the coinage of Spanish youth as the "Lost Generation."
Spain's reality is ill fitting with royalty. It is one of ongoing economic hardship and increasing leftist populism and emboldened Catalan separatism — this last EU election marks the first time Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) has won an election of any kind in Catalonia since the times of the Second Spanish Republic. The abdication of one king for another is only an optical breathe of fresh air for Spain — it's not the change a struggling country needs, but it's the change it's getting, for now.
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