The rise and fall of King Juan Carlos and the crown's popularity in Catalonia

Appointed by fascist dictator Franco, popularity of early years shifted due to elephant-hunting trip and corruption scandals

Archive image of Spanish king, Felipe VI, with his father and predecessor, Juan Carlos
Archive image of Spanish king, Felipe VI, with his father and predecessor, Juan Carlos / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

March 28, 2021 01:22 PM

"Spaniards, Franco is dead." The televised announcement of the fascist dictator's death made by the then-head of the Spanish government, Carlos Arias Navarro, on November 20, 1975, is seared in the collective memory of millions of people, signifying the beginning of a new era in Spain. And who would lead it was clear.

Franco had named his successor in an effort to perpetuate his regime, confirming this decision on his deathbed.

Thus, Juan Carlos took office on November 22, 1975 upon swearing allegiance to the principles of the dictatorship (Principios del Movimiento Nacional) – but soon afterward it was evident that he wanted to encourage Spain's transition to democracy.

Role in transition to democracy

The new monarch played a key role in leaving behind Francoism, and when, three years after the approval of Spain's Constitution in 1978, the transition seemed to peril due to an attempted military coup, Juan Carlos made a rare televised address that contributed to its failure.

Following this message, his popularity skyrocketed in the 80s and 90s, and a new term, 'Juancarlismo', was coined to refer to the republicans who supported the new king.

Rise in popularity in 1980s and 1990s

For years, Juan Carlos was fondly called 'campechano' (easy-going) and garnered widespread support even in Catalonia.

He famously chaired the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and in October 1997, one of his daughters, princess Cristina, married FC Barcelona handball player Iñaki Urdangarin. They settled down in Barcelona and Cristina worked for years at the then Catalan bank, 'La Caixa'.

The monarchy enjoyed popularity, but the beginning of the new millennium brought in a new generation. This was the first not directly involved in Francoism and the transition and criticism began to mount.

Mounting criticism of younger generations

Televised parodies began to pop up, especially on the Catalan public broadcaster TV3, and republican parties stepped up their criticism of an institution that they deemed anti-democratic and obsolete.

"Mori el Borbó," or death to the Bourbon, the king's family name, was a statement made by Esquerra MP Joan Tardà in 2007, sending shockwaves through Spanish politics.

The hasty surge of the Catalan pro-independence movement at the beginning of the 2010s was inversely proportional to the progress of the crown's popularity – thousands of FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao fans' massive booings of the Spanish anthem and king at several Copa del Rey football cup finals from 2009 by were just a symptom.

In 2010, a judge in Palma opened an investigation into alleged public contract irregularities granted to the foundation chaired by Urdangarin. After a very long trial, he would eventually be sentenced to six years behind bars for breach of official duty, fraud against the administration, crimes against the tax office, and influence peddling.

Tipping point: elephant-hunting trip

Yet, the tipping point came in 2012, during a very serious recession, when Spain learned some shocking news about its head of state: Juan Carlos had broken his hip in an accident… while elephant-hunting in Botswana.

The public was astonished to learn of the monarch's expensive hobbies and the existence of his lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Details of his private life were no longer the juicy content of gossip magazines, but a political issue as unemployment reached 25%.

The monarchy was not only questioned in Catalonia or the Basque Country, but elsewhere – and three weeks after republican Podemos' breakthrough in an election, the King unexpectedly abdicated in June 2014 and his son, Felipe, took over.

Felipe and the 2017 independence push

Yet, republicanism was already on the rise in Spain and hegemonic in Catalonia, especially after the independence referendum held on October 1, 2017.

Two days later, on October 3, King Felipe made a rare televised address – he and his father usually only give such speeches on Christmas Eve, with the exception of the failed 1981 coup. The monarch blasted the Catalan government for organizing the vote without Spain's authorization, making no mention of the over 1,000 injured by the Spanish police operation on October 1.

"It is the state powers' duty to guarantee the constitutional order and the normal functioning of institutions, the enforcement of the rule of law and Catalonia's self-rule, based on the constitution," he said, only a few weeks before the Spanish executive imposed direct rule.

"With their decisions, they systematically violated norms that were legally and rightfully passed, displaying unacceptable disloyalty towards the state powers," he said in a speech seen by the pro-independence camp as a break from the political neutrality the constitution holds him to.

Indeed, the parties in favor of a Catalan republic have rejected meetings with the king or attending events where he was taking part ever since then on the grounds that he has not apologized for the 2017 speech. Since then, every one of Felipe's official visits has prompted protests in Catalonia and parliament has passed several motions calling for the abolition of the crown.

$100m gift from Saudi Arabia and undeclared income

The latest chapter, for now, in the fall of Juan Carlos came to light in 2020, in the form of an alleged $100m-kickback from Saudi Arabia in exchange for getting a discount from Spanish companies building a high-speed train link in Mecca.

Franco's successor might have used two off-shore funds to move the money – one of which named his son Felipe as a beneficiary. This prompted the current king to renounce his inheritance in March 2020, at the time the Covid-19 pandemic first hit Spain.

This and other possible corruption scandals have led to the opening of judicial investigations in Spain and Switzerland. With these underway, the former king moved to Abu Dhabi, UAE, marking the worst days for the crown in modern times.

A few months later, Juan Carlos paid Spain's tax office €5 million in back taxes for undeclared income.

Although none of these cases are expected to carry a trial or a conviction against Juan Carlos, especially because the Constitution provides that a king cannot be tried while in office, his legacy will inevitably be tainted by the multiple scandals.

His son, and perhaps his granddaughter Leonor, heirs to the throne, could be tarnished by his legacy in the future.