It took nearly a week to pin down the whereabouts of Spain’s former king Juan Carlos de Borbón – who fled the country on August 2nd after a string of revelations into his corrupt business dealings. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, looking visibly uncomfortable at his weekly press conference, claimed he did not know where the ex-monarch had gone. After reports that he flown to the Dominican Republic were quashed by the country’s interior minister, a photo emerged on Sunday of Juan Carlos disembarking from a private jet in Abu Dhabi where he is staying in a $12,000-a-night suite at the government-owned Emirates Palace hotel.
That his destination was a Middle Eastern petro-dictatorship is no accident. Since 2018 numerous leaks have revealed a series of colossal illegal payments made to the former king from Arab royal families, as well as from Spanish CEOs – most notably a $100 million “donation” from Saudi King Abdullah in 2008. Swiss and Spanish prosecutors have launched investigations into whether the Saudi payment is linked to the €6.7 billion Mecca-Medina high-speed train contract Juan Carlos had helped secure for a Spanish consortium in 2008. Fresh revelations in March – which linked one of his offshore funds to his son, and the current king, Felipe VI – made his situation increasingly untenable.
The news of Juan Carlos’s speedy exit has also created a rift within Spain’s left-leaning coalition – with ministers from the radical Unidas Podemos kept in the dark by centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez about the ex-king’s plans. In responses to the flight of the man who sat on the Spanish throne for nearly four decades, Podemos’ think-tank Instituto 25M has called for a new constitutive process to be launched, which would include a consultative referendum on the monarchy.
In the following article for Tribune, the director of Instituto 25M and Podemos co-founder Juan Carlos Monedero analyses the conservative role the monarchy has played in Spanish society since the country’s transition to democracy in the 1970s and makes the case for a new republic.
– Eoghan Gilmartin
Spain’s international image has been profoundly damaged by the spectacle of the king emeritus Juan Carlos I fleeing the country to an initially undisclosed destination. His exit took place against a background of well-grounded suspicions over the illegal origin of much of his fortune and flies in the face of high-profile defenders of the existing parliamentary monarchy [such as ex-PSOE Premier Felipe González] who have repeatedly claimed Juan Carlos was a source of great national prestige.
His own legitimacy as king had always been formulated in terms of three criteria: the origin of his mandate, how he exercised that mandate and the results generated under his mandate.
The origin of Juan Carlos’ mandate was profoundly tainted by the fact that he became head of state on the death of Francisco Franco in November 1975. Since 1947, Francoist Spain had officially been designated a kingdom so as to be able to secure United Nations membership but it was one without a monarch and only in 1969 did Franco name Juan Carlos I as his legitimate successor with the title ‘king.’
These Francoist origins, his own defence of the dictatorship and the political education he received at the side of the dictator ensured Juan Carlos was not well received by the anti-Francoist democratic forces. Also even in terms of dynastic lines, his legitimacy was questionable as his father was the rightful living heir – something that caused the two men to fall out when Juan Carlos accepted Franco’s succession plans.
Much more important was the legitimacy accrued through exercising his mandate, above all with respect to how the botched 1981 coup de d’état played out. The coup had been hatched within the royal household, with General Alfonso Armada – the royal family’s ex-chief of staff and Juan Carlos’ military mentor – directly implicated.
At the last moment, however, the king himself was forced to retreat from his attempt to use the military uprising so as to impose a national emergency government –which would have been led by General Armada. This was down to the reckless outburst of one of the officers leading the operation against the Spanish parliament on February 23rd – Antonio Tejero – who fired shots into the air within the packed chamber.
Juan Carlos’ subsequent televised address to the nation in the early hours of the morning of February 24th [in which he came out in defence of the constitution] served to cover up his own involvement in the failed coup and created the image of him as the king who had saved Spanish democracy. This was a narrative that was reinforced by the media – who during forty years silenced any criticism of the crown.
Finally, the monarchy also generated a sense of legitimacy through “results” – as Juan Carlos’ reign became associated with the economic growth Spain experienced after the death of Franco. The country was incorporated into the European Union and the wider multilateral order while the foundations were laid for a weak but incipient welfare state.
As the income of Spaniards multiplied, the old Francoist figures at the top of the army, judiciary and politics gradually died off. The rest was taken care of through a policy of amnesia as Spain became the only country in Europe where you could call yourself a democrat without also having to be an antifascist.
Along similar lines to Bismarck’s strategy in late 19th century Germany, the new parliamentary monarchy offered a degree of social welfare as a replacement for a more meaningful democracy. Instead the post-Francoist regime (sustained by the 1978 constitution) was characterised by a strict two-party system, the centralisation of territorial power and systematic cronyism. This all formed part of the historic DNA of Spanish conservatism but under Juan Carlos’ reign it also contaminated the centre-left PSOE.
The stagnant complacency of the 1978 regime was finally shattered by the Indignados movement that surged onto to the national stage on May 15th, 2011. With its strong youth cohort, the Indignados did not readily accept the forms of legitimacy that the previous generations had associated with Juan Carlos. At the same time, the complicity and silence of the Spanish press began to crack – most likely due to internal settling of scores among the elite. Juan Carlos, after all, made sure he had his fingers in the pie of every kickback going.
The decisive blow against the monarch, however, came with Juan Carlos I’s 2012 accident in Botswana [which occurred on a luxurious holiday hunting elephants] while the Spanish people were suffering the worst effects of austerity and the economic crisis. This finally delegitimised the king at a moment when the monarchy was also embroiled in a corruption scandal involving his daughter Cristina de Borbón and her husband Iñaki Urdangarín, who would later be jailed.
It was PSOE, and in particular its historic leaders Alfredo Rubalcaba and Felipe González, that negotiated Juan Carlos I’s 2014 abdication as a way to save the Spanish monarchy as an institution. But it was already gravely injured and the attempts to present the Infanta Leonor as a promise of renewal failed to gain any traction. Indeed in falling back on the image of Infantas and young princesses, the monarchy seemed to ever more belong in the realm of fairytales.
It was in this context that the Swiss prosecutors’ investigation into Juan Carlos’ financial dealings was launched. At first this was largely ignored by the press but when the Spanish Supreme Court then also opened an investigation, it became increasingly hard to keep the issue out of the headlines.
The crisis deepened further in March of this year when the current king, Felipe VI, was forced to renounce any form of financial inheritance from his father [after his name appeared as the principal benefactor of one of Juan Carlos’ offshore funds in the eventuality of the ex-king’s death].
Attempting to draw a line in the sand over the issue, Felipe issued a strongly worded statement referring to his father’s business dealings as being at odds with the principles of integrity, honesty and transparency. But far from putting the matter to bed, it simply ensnared him further in the scandal.
This leads to the latest events – the flight of the king emeritus from Spain and Prime Minister Sánchez claiming at his press conference that this was all simply a private affair (a position not agreed upon with his coalition partner, Unidas Podemos). The PM also stated that he did not know where Juan Carlos I had gone, something that hardly seemed credible.
But more than that, it was the way his exit was handled – with the king emeritus first fleeing the country and only making it public after he had left Spanish soil. Maybe if it had been the other way around, the sense that he had fled to escape his legal troubles would not have been so widespread in Spanish society.
Towards a Constitutive Debate
In the 19th century Marx correctly recognised the state’s role in coordinating the joint interests of the bourgeoisie, even if this process later occurred through a more complex set of mechanisms. Under Juan Carlos I, the monarchy took on such a strategic role for the Spanish oligarchy – becoming one of the cornerstones around which the post-Franco regime was sustained and organised.
This was a regime that, despite economic growth, has made Spain the most unequal country in the EU-15 bloc of Western European states. It is also one in which the king not only held supreme command within the armed forces but where the royal court became a space for the trafficking of favours and the negotiation of crony relationships. Corruption was the lubricant that kept the whole system in motion – with the king receiving massive commissions for his symbolic and practical work in maintaining this whole structure.
As the constitutional expert Gerardo Pisarello recently wrote, the king has legal immunity under the Spanish constitution because all his actions are meant to be supervised by a relevant minister or, ultimately by the Prime Minister. Yet if he committed criminal offences, were such crimes committed under the watch of these government representatives, or was the monarch acting outside of the constitution? In either case Felipe VI was aware of such criminal behaviour for least one year before it was made public – choosing not to bring it to the attention of the relevant legal authorities.
As an institution, the monarchy is intrinsically tied to genetics and the person embodying the office. It is not possible to separate the institution from the person representing it. Felipe VI is only king because he is the son of his father – or more precisely his male heir. And so the crisis engulfing Juan Carlos I, has led the monarchy itself to be placed in question – and with it the edifice that guarantees the privileges of the Spanish elites.
Indeed, if his father is convicted of tax fraud or money laundering, the origin of Felipe VI’s mandate will be fundamentally undermined. Similarly the manner in which he has exercised his constitutional role to date has also weakened his legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens – particularly in relation to the Catalan independence crisis.
The standoff in Catalonia could have served a similar legitimising role as the February 23rd coup had for his father but rather than positioning himself as an arbitrator, he choose to back the PP government’s repressive response in the region. Furthermore, there has been little legitimacy generated through the results of his reign, with his time on the throne dominated by the fallout of the 2008 crisis and now the subsequent crisis linked to Covid-19.
The PSOE have always claimed rather incongruously to be both Republican and “Juancarlista” – justified in terms of the king’s role in guaranteeing the constitutional order. While it is now inclined to closing ranks around Felipe, Unidas Podemos, with its strong commitment to historical memory and republican values, are insisting that the office of the head of state be subordinated to democratic procedures.
The form of state that corresponds to a democracy is the republic, because it sees through to its ultimate consequences the principle that all citizens are equal, something that does not happen when there is a family that claims its right to the head of state without submitting itself to elections.
In a context of increasing virulence against Spain’s progressive coalition from the right and extreme-right, the only viable exit from this constitutional crisis is to open up a process of dialogue across Spanish society. We need to have a constitutive debate – or at least a pre-constitutive one – that will allow the Spanish people to address the outstanding issues that could not be tackled during the country’s transition to democracy.
The vices and failings of the Transition continue to haunt our existing democracy and only by opening up a popular debate over a new constitutional settlement, including over the form of the state, can we hope to overcome them.