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Spaniards Across Spain and in Mexico City Call for a Referendum on the Monarchy

While Spain's monarchy is ceremonial, in a time that is marked by crisis, the fact it enjoys privilege is a source of outrage for many.

by Javier Molina
Jun 3 2014, 10:30pm

Photo by Juanma Mendoza

As the establishment press sings its praises for King Juan Carlos I de Borbón — who spent 39 years as the monarch before abdicating the throne on Monday to his son — the downtown areas of the most important cities in Spain began filling up with protesters who wish to claim the right to choose whether the monarchy is to continue or if it is to meet its end with Juan Carlos’s reign.

In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza — which served as the epicenter of the anti-government protests that began on May 15, 2011, or the 15-M movement — more than 20,000 people chanted pro-Republican slogans like “Monarchy Out!,” “Up With the Third Republic!,” and “Referendum Now!”

The left convened protests in more than 100 cities across Spain, as well as dozens of European and Latin American cities.

In Mexico City, an emotional protest was spontaneously held outside the Spanish embassy by descendants of Mexico's tight-knit community of exiles of the Spanish Civil War.

On June 2, King Juan Carlos of Spain announced his abdication, sparking anti-monarchy protests across the country.

The progressive political parties, especially the Podemos (We Can) Party and Izquierda Unida (United Left) — which obtained historic results on the May 25 European elections — didn’t want to immediately jumped at a perceived opportunity to transform the current system, in place for almost four decades.

The king on Monday announced his abdication in favor of his son Felipe de Borbón, who is to be known as Felipe VI of Spain. “A new generation demands a figurehead to confront the challenges with renewed vigor,” the king announced in a televised broadcast.

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King Juan Carlos announced he would be abdicating the throne in favor of his son Felipe.

As he confirmed in the video, King Juan Carlos I made the decision last January, as he turned 76 years old and recovered from several health complications. He alluded to his early days as king and reinforced his reign’s legacy.

This video shows Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy making the official announcement.

“I set out to take charge of the exhilarating national task that allowed the citizens to elect their legitimate representatives and undertake the great and positive transformation of Spain, which had been so desperately needed,” he said.

The Royal Legacy
Few in Spain would deny the king’s role as a fundamental mediator during the transition to democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco Bahamonde in 1975, which ended the repressive Fascist dictatorship that he began in 1939.

Thanks to the presence of the king, and a small group of politicians headed by Adolfo Suárez and Santiago Carillo, the right–wing Francoist forces learned to respect the new democratic order that began to remake Spain in 1977.

The monarch’s reputation as the face of the Spanish people was generally good, but in recent years, corruption scandals emerged that were directly linked to his family. His daughter, Infanta Cristina, is still implicated in the Urdangarín case — a plot related to money laundering that implicated her husband.

In 2012, King Juan Carlos was heavily criticized after photos emerged of him before an elephant that he hunted in Botswana — right in the midst of budget cuts and shortages that were making life increasingly difficult for everyday Spaniards.

King Juan Carlos, in an unprecedented gesture, appeared on camera to deliver a public apology.

The king is shown in this video being asked about the trip as he emerged from hospital following treatment for a fractured hip he suffered while in Botswana. Credit: YouTube/ RTVE

“It won’t happen again,” he said, with a look of shame visible on his face. But even this gesture did not convince the people to forgive him. Ten years ago the monarchy was the highest valued institution among the Spanish people, according to polls. Now it ranks low on the list.

The role of the monarch in Spain is more ceremonial than political, but in a time that is marked by crisis — budget cuts, mass evictions, and social agitation — the fact that a monarchic caste apparently enjoys total impunity and privilege is a source of outrage for many.

Additionally, although Juan Carlos always appeared to be humble and populist before the cameras, his son and the heir to the throne, Felipe, does not enjoy his father’s overall positive legacy. For many, the continuity of the monarchy in Spain in the 21st Century is an anachronism that is to be avoided at all cost, especially in times of crisis.

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“The profound and enduring economic crisis that we are afflicted by has left serious scars on the flesh of society, but it also indicates a path toward the future that is full of hope,” King Juan Carlos said, acknowledging the social problems that Spain is facing.

The streets of the capital today are full of the purple, red and yellow flags of the Second Spanish Republican at the protest sites, one can hear the people’s not-so-polite harangues directed at the king. The crowd’s shouts vary between mild demands, like “Get out!” to more radical phrases like, “Throw the Bourbons to the sharks.”

Protesters in Mexico City

In Mexico City, where a sizable Spanish exile community has grown in recent years as a result of the economic crisis back home, dozens of Spaniards gathered at their country’s embassy on Monday to press for the referendum. Many waved the old Spanish Republican flag.

Protesters in Mexico City

“We are celebrating the fact that the king abdicated, he is an imposed king, placed by a dictator,” a grandson of Spanish exiles in Mexico who identified himself as Enrique C., told VICE News. “The legitimate government has always been and should always be the republic. It is the perfect moment to change everything else that the transition [to democracy] left unfinished.”

Spain's Republican Past
It is important to remember that in Spain, the Republican ideology alludes directly to the period between 1931 and 1936, the years of the Second Republic. During this period, after the fall of the reign of Alfonso XIII — King Juan Carlos’s grandfather — the proclamation of the Second Republic had as a consequence the installation of a progressive constitution, which profoundly altered the era.

The fascist right and the military — led by Franco — put an end to this brief period of democracy and embarked on a bloody three-year civil war against the overthrown Republicans, a conflict that eventually claimed the lives of half a million Spaniards. The foreign powers viewed the Spanish conflict as a test between fascism and democracy, and a precursor to the great Second World War that was about to unfold. The fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini supported Franco, just as the Soviets under Stalin supported the republic.

Idealists across the globe saw the Republican cause in Spain as a great bid against fascism, and many came to volunteer in defense of the republic. It was said at the time that “the future of the entire world is at stake in Spain.”

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Many of the world’s most renowned artists and writers — Hemingway, Malraux, Orwell, Paz, Neruda, Vallejo and Siqueiros, among others — traveled to Spain to personally fight alongside the Republicans.

This is why, even today, the idea of the republic — the purple, red and yellow flag that still ignites passions in Spain — is associated with leftist idealism.

“A similar phenomenon has yet to be reproduced,” asserted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro — a son of Spanish exiles — referring to the Republican idealism and its proven ability to gather world support.

Political Reactions to Change of Power
The majority parties, the government of the right–wing Popular Party (PP) and the moderate Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), have declared themselves in favor of the continuance of the monarchy and are preparing themselves to approve the monarchy’s change of power in the Spanish courts.

But, their defeat in the past elections — in which the two major parties received less than half of the vote — and the rise of the antimonarchic radical left jeopardizes the immediate future of the bipartisan system and, therefore, the system of the monarchy.

Social media in Spain has taken up the hashtags #ElReyAbdica (The King Abdicates), #ReferendumYa (Referendum Now), and #IIIRepública (Third Republic) in recent days. The leftist groups, especially the emerging Podemos Party — the political inheritors of the grassroots 15-M movement — call for a referendum that would allow the citizens to choose whether or not they wish to continue living under the monarchy, or prefer that Spain become, once again, a progressive republic.

Regardless of what happens, the marches in favor of the referendum and for the end of the monarchy are spreading across Spain this week, in a seemingly unstoppable and organic public call.

The most popular chant so far has been “Tomorrow morning Spain will be Republican.” The morning they refer to is, of course, a utopia — but a utopia that today seems closer than ever.

“I’m standing before my country’s embassy because I want to ask my government, the senators, and the congress, that it permit the citizens to express themselves and decide what political model we want,” said a man who identified himself as Jorge M.F. “The feeling today in Spain is one of rejection of a social system that is unequal, unjust, and corrupt. What we want is change, and change begins with being heard.”

Reporter Juanma Mendoza contributed to this report from Mexico City. All photos by Juanma Mendoza.

Follow Javier Molina on Twitter: @javimolinav

Follow Juanma Mendoza on Twitter: @juanma_eme