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September 2, 2014
Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A democratic legacy, with a cloudy ending

Spain’s King Juan Carlos smiles as he stands front of his son, Crown Prince Felipe, as they watch the Spanish National Day parade in central Madrid in this file photo from October, 1995.

Juan Carlos was hand-picked by Franco to replace him

MADRID — King Juan Carlos, who announced plans to abdicate the throne yesterday, helped guide Spain to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, but his 40-year reign was clouded at its end by scandal and accusations he was out of touch with the economic suffering of his people.

The reign of Juan Carlos, 76, is best known for a television broadcast he made in the early hours of February 24, 1981, condemning a revolt — known as 23-F — by right-wing military officers aggrieved by democratic reforms. Television footage of the leader of the rebels firing his revolver in Parliament to cow deputies had been shown across the world.

“The crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the motherland, cannot tolerate any actions or attitudes by persons who intend to interrupt the democratic process by force,” he said to a nation on tenterhooks.

He was hailed at the time, but there were, and still are, suspcions on the left that he had originally encouraged the attempted pusch and had backed out only when it was clear the coup would not work. Juan Carlos, after all, had been personally chosen and groomed by General Franco to lead the country after his death, after the dictator rejected the natural heir to the throne, his more liberal father Juan de Borbón.

Franco had groomed him since 1948, when the future king first set foot in Spain at the age of 10. In 1969, when he was officially designated as Franco’s successor, he had been required to swear loyalty to Franco’s Movimiento. Juan Carlos was eventually crowned two days after Franco’s death, on November 22, 1975.

Right-wingers had expected the king to continue with Franco’s authoritarian style and felt betrayed when he paved the way for Spain to adopt a democratic Constitution in 1978. After his famous address on the night of the coup, Juan Carlos went on to earn the respect of notable, long-standing republicans.

“If the king had not been there on February 23 the military coup would have triumphed — of that I have no doubt,” veteran Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo, who spent about 40 years in exile, said in 2001.

As a monarch, Juan Carlos and his wife, Queen Sophia, were originally seen more warmly, in contrast to more distant royals, like the members of the British monarchy.

But corruption scandals had eroded the king’s popularity in recent years. His daughter Princess Cristina and her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, are under investigation over alleged embezzlement of six million euros in public funds.

The king himself has faced accusations of being out of touch, especially in 2012 when he took an elephant hunting trip at the height of Spain’s financial crisis, which reportedly cost 10,000 euros a day. The monarch broke his right hip on the trip and had to be flown from Botswana home aboard a private jet for medical treatment.

The trip was just weeks after he had claimed he was so upset about mass unemployment in Spain that he couldn’t sleep at night.

Early years

Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria Borbon y Borbon-Dos Sicilias was born January 5, 1938, on the eve of World War II in Rome, where the royals lived after fleeing Spain when it became a republic in 1931.

Historians have argued that the hands-off approach to the family after its return to Spain was needed to safeguard a young and fragile democracy, although critics have said this amounted to censorship.

“We’ve had democracy for 30 years now,” said Senator Iñaki Aanasagasti in 2010, a leading critic of the monarchy. “The media have been too benevolent towards the king in a democratic state.”

Not every Spaniard, for example, knows about a fatal shooting accident when the king was 18. His younger brother Alfonso died in 1956 aged 15 in the family home in Portugal. A statement cleared by Franco said Alfonso was killed while cleaning a gun with his brother.

However, historian Paul Preston, in his 2003 biography on the King, claims it is a widely accepted fact today that Juan Carlos’ finger was “on the trigger” when the gun was accidentally fired.

The monarch was educated in Switzerland, Portugal and later in Armed Forces academies in Spain; he was often seen wearing military uniform. He married Princess Sophia of Greece in 1962.

Herald with Reuters

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