Juan Carlos’ downfall started one morning in April 2012 in a hunting camp in Botswana, when he tripped on a stair and broke his hip.
Details of the previously undisclosed €40,000 trip — paid for by a Saudi businessman and shared with a former lover and her child — sparked anger at a time when Spaniards were suffering through the global financial crisis. Within days, the then Spanish king emitted an apology: “I am sorry. I made a mistake.”
This week, after more controversy and allegations, Juan Carlos formulated another apology in the form of exile. The royal was to “leave Spain” after “public repercussions that certain past events in my private life are generating”, he wrote in a statement.
It has been a rapid fall from grace for the man once feted as both the architect and saviour of Spain’s democracy. The past decade has witnessed cracks in a phenomenon author Javier Cercas called the “taboo of the king” — whereby Spain’s major media outlets long omitted negative stories about the monarchy.
“We’ve gone from not saying anything bad about the king to convicting him without a trial,” Mr Cercas said.
In the decades following the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, Juan Carlos was the king who defied democrats’ expectations by becoming a bulwark protecting Spain’s young democracy. Despite having been raised by Franco himself since the age of 10 — under a deal sealed by his exiled father — he brought together Spain’s political parties to design a transition to a parliamentary monarchy, leading to the 1978 constitution. Three years later, he thwarted a military coup.
“[His reign] started off with a real weakness. The only ’right’ Juan Carlos had to be king was he was Franco’s nominated successor,” said historian Paul Preston, author of the biography Juan Carlos: A People’s King. “But then, because of his amazing acuity and bravery, the massive contribution Juan Carlos made to [the] creation and protection of democracy, he converted Spain into not so much a monarchist country but a ‘juancarlist’ country”.
However, the global financial and the eurozone debt crises, followed by a 2011 investigation into the business activities of Juan Carlos’s son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin — who was convicted and is now in prison — caused the media protection to crumble.
Public support of the monarchy plunged following regular stories about the king’s affair with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, his guest in Botswana, and lavish gifts from Gulf monarchs. Trust in the monarchy, as measured by Spain’s CIS survey service, sank from a high of 7.5/10 in 1995 to 3.7 in 2013. In 2015, with trust near record lows, the CIS discontinued the question.
The respite brought by Juan Carlos’ abdication in 2014 in favour of his son Felipe was cut short by fresh allegations.
A money-laundering probe in Switzerland examined how two offshore foundations linked to the former king came to amass large fortunes, including one, the Panamanian entity Lucum, which received $100m from Saudi Arabia in 2008. Juan Carlos himself is not under investigation.
In March this year, Ms Sayn-Wittgenstein alleged that her former lover had given her €65m in 2012 — money she said came from the $100m gift, which she claimed came from the late Saudi king Abdullah.
Her lawyers had previously sent a letter to the royal palace stating that Juan Carlos’ son was listed as a beneficiary of the Lucum foundation.
Then in June, the Spanish supreme court started investigating the former king’s involvement in supposed commissions paid for the contract of a high-speed rail line between the Saudi holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which was awarded to a Spanish consortium in 2011.
Juan Carlos has declined to comment on the allegations. His lawyer, Javier Sánchez-Junco, said his client remained “in any case at the disposition of the public prosecutor for any procedure or action deemed timely”.
“He fell for two reasons: women and money,” said Lucía Méndez, a leading Spanish journalist. “The women are a weakness of the Bourbons. But the Spanish monarchy is poor. The previous king left Spain with nothing, and the family depended on monarchists who lived abroad. For this king, after his childhood and youth, he thought he had the right, because of his services to the country, to charge commissions, to take gifts.”
The Spanish crown is a relatively modest job: the king receives an annual salary of about €240,000, out of a budget of about €8m a year for the entire royal family. The real cost rises to between €50m and €60m once security, travel and other costs paid by Spain’s ministries are included, according to analysts’ estimates. As a comparison, the UK’s monarchy costs £85.9m a year (€95m).
As the investigations intensified, Felipe VI sought to distance himself from his father — renouncing any inheritance that “might not be consonant with the law or with the criteria of rectitude and integrity”. Juan Carlos was also removed from the palace payroll.
Even gone, Juan Carlos is causing trouble. Speculation runs wild over his whereabouts, the latest reports locating him in a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi. Pro-republican groups supported by the leftwing Podemos party protested in Pamplona and in cities across the Basque Country this week with the slogan “Bourbons out, monarchy out”.
While Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez supported the monarchy by saying that “people are judged, not institutions”, Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias, his coalition partner, said the “flight” was “unbefitting” for a head of state.
Meanwhile, Juan Carlos’ son is facing the task of rebuilding the monarchy’s image just as the economy reels from the coronavirus pandemic. “He’s in a tough spot,” said Alberto Lardiés, author of La Democracia Borbónica. “No one wants to be the last king.”