During Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s, the communist leader Santiago Carrillo observed that without King Juan Carlos “the shooting would have already begun”. It was a deserved tribute to the former king’s role in ensuring that no violence reminiscent of Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war accompanied the replacement of Francoism with freedom. Thanks to his decisive contribution to the defeat of an attempted military coup in 1981, Juan Carlos basked in a respect and popularity that made him one of the world’s most admired constitutional monarchs.
His fall from grace has been steep. After a reign of 39 years, he abdicated his throne in 2014 as a web of corruption scandals thickened around the monarchy. Then, five months ago, the Spanish establishment signalled its grave concerns about Juan Carlos’s behaviour when King Felipe VI, his son, cancelled his father’s stipend, worth almost €200,000 a year, and renounced any inheritance from his father.
This week, amid investigations in Spain and Switzerland into alleged financial improprieties, Juan Carlos, 82, announced that he was going into exile. His departure is the latest chapter in the turbulent story of the House of Bourbon, first placed on the Spanish throne in the early 18th century. King Alfonso XIII, Juan Carlos’s grandfather, went into exile in 1931 with the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic. Queen Isabel II, Alfonso’s grandmother, was forced into exile in 1868 after a conflict known to Spaniards as la Gloriosa, or the Glorious Revolution.
Republicanism is as much a Spanish political tradition as monarchism. For more than a decade, it has been gaining strength. However, it is an open question whether Spain in its present divided condition can afford a bitter fight about whether to depose the Bourbons for a third time.
For the troubles of Juan Carlos and the monarchy are symptomatic of a deeper crisis of the modern Spanish state. The great achievements of the democratic era — political pluralism, civil liberties, economic modernisation and a prominent role in European integration — are intact. But the compromises embodied in Spain’s 1978 constitution are under pressure, and the state structures that served Spain well after the return of democracy are in need of reform.
The most intractable issue is the independence movement in Catalonia. Forty years ago, scarcely one in 20 voters in the north-eastern region supported secession from Spain. By the time separatist leaders staged an illegal referendum on independence in October 2017, they received the support of roughly two in five eligible voters. The polarisation of Catalonian society found expression in the fact that more than half the region’s electorate — mostly, those opposed to secession and using Spanish as their first language — simply boycotted the 2017 vote.
King Felipe unambiguously supports Spain’s territorial unity, a stance that is in line with the constitution but makes the monarchy too controversial, especially in Catalonia, for him to act as a mediator. So the deadlock persists, no matter whether Spain is ruled by the rightwing Popular party or, as now, by a Socialist-led leftist coalition. One compromise would be to extend the autonomy awarded to Catalonia under the constitution, a cherished achievement of the Juan Carlos era. But it is no easy task to revise the constitution when the party political system, in both Catalonia and the rest of Spain, is in upheaval.
As Spain’s young democracy took shape, autonomy was granted not only to Catalonia but, over time, to all 17 regions of the country. It was a formula known as café para todos — coffee for everyone. To revise it exclusively for Catalonia’s benefit would be hard, for the regional political parties, public bodies and interest groups spawned by Spanish decentralisation would expect something for themselves.
The other side of this problem is the fractured political landscape. Catalonia’s separatists are increasingly disunited, incapable of agreeing either on the maximalists’ demand for swift, complete independence or on a less extreme posture involving some co-operation with Madrid. At national level, party corruption scandals, the eurozone debt crisis and the Mediterranean refugee and migrant emergency have blended with the Catalonia crisis to destroy the post-1978 system under which the Popular party and Socialists used to alternate in power.
Two upstart parties, the far-right Vox and the more moderate Ciudadanos, represent in no small measure a Spanish nationalist reaction to Catalan separatism. Together with Podemos, a leftwing party, they severely complicate the formation of stable governments in Madrid. Between December 2015 and November 2019 Spain held four inconclusive elections, producing fragile coalitions or minority governments that have lacked the authority to solve problems such as the Catalonia stand-off.
What would help Spain is a dose of the enlightened statesmanship and democratic compromise that inspired the makers of the 1978 constitution. Juan Carlos used to personify that spirit. But in other respects his behaviour has so damaged the monarchy’s standing that the House of Bourbon may never regain the central place in Spanish public life it occupied in the early years of his reign.