Spaniards in crisis no longer tolerate safaris and frivolities of an out-of-touch king
The king’s passion for big game hunting this week exposed a deep rift between him and his people at a moment of multiple national crises
NOBODY KNEW that Spain, home of bullfighting, cared so deeply about elephant hunting.
This week, however, a photograph King Juan Carlos (74), posing in Great White Hunter mode with a slaughtered elephant in Botswana, provoked national outrage – and an unprecedented apology from a humiliated monarch.
“I am sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again,” he told TV cameras as he left hospital in Madrid on Wednesday.
His private safari had suddenly become very public last week, when, in a midnight slip on the stairs of his hunting lodge he fractured his hip, requiring an emergency flight home and his fourth operation in 18 months.
The king has been in trouble over hunting escapades before. He got a bad press for holidaying in the hunting lodge of Romania’s former dictator and for shooting a drugged Russian bear specially released from a zoo for his pleasure. This time, however, circumstances have conspired to inflame the strong, if often subterranean, anti- monarchical sentiment in Spain.
There have been widespread calls for Juan Carlos’s immediate abdication in favour of his son.
The future of the monarchy itself has come under sharp question from commentators and politicians well beyond its habitual critics on the far left and right.
The king’s apology, unequivocal and in person, has poured some oil on very troubled waters, but a tide now appears to be flowing implacably against the man once hailed as the saviour of Spanish democracy.
In the past, Spaniards were generally tolerant enough of the king’s frequent unexplained absences from public life. The persistent rumours of extra- marital affairs, now repeated in regard to the Botswana trip, did his reputation no great harm.
These days, however, Spain is much less inclined to be indulgent. The country is traumatised by the fear that it faces an almost unthinkable IMF-EU bailout. Meanwhile, savage new cutbacks to avert that prospect are crippling middle and working classes already ravaged by unemployment.
The extravagant frivolity, and the timing, of the king’s Botswana trip has shattered the wall of respect, and indeed affection, that has long protected him from much public scrutiny.
In addition, the trip coincided with Spain’s unprecedented crisis with Argentina over that country’s nationalisation of its oil company, Repsol. One of the king’s special responsibilities is supposed to be maintaining good relationships with Latin-American countries.
Juan Carlos’s image had already been eroded in recent months by a business scandal in which his son- in-law, Iñigo Urdangarin, is accused of misusing public and private funds. Last week, one witness implicated the king directly in the case.
A typical response to all this came from Jesús Mostarín, a scientist, in an incandescent article in El Pais, a paper usually very supportive of the monarchy. He reminded readers that the government had just cut national research and development by 25 per cent, while the royal household had suffered a purely symbolic cut of 2 per cent.
The news that the Botswana trip was financed by an agent of the Saudi royal family has not necessarily softened his point.
Mostarín wrote that, in the now notorious image of the kings trophy moment, the face of the dead elephant was “infinitely more noble and beautiful” that that of the living Juan Carlos.
Other commentators have reminded Spaniards of the royal family’s very unfortunate history with guns. At 17, Juan Carlos accidentally killed his younger brother with a shot to the head during target practice.
One might have thought that this would have instilled great caution about giving the royal offspring access to weaponry, but history almost repeated itself this month when the king’s 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot while illegally handling a shotgun with his father. The image of almost criminal carelessness, in a lifestyle far removed from the average Spaniard’s, was reinforced.
This is a very steep fall from grace for the man often credited with facilitating Spain’s transition to democracy from Gen Franco’s dictatorship in the late 1970s. In particular, he is warmly remembered for apparently facing down a military coup by neo-fascist army officers in 1981.
Today, however, more Spaniards are remembering that Juan Carlos was groomed for an elite role in a dictatorship. They are openly wondering to what extent his remarkable conversion to constitutional democracy was based on opportunist pragmatism rather than principle.
This week the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund is moving to remove the king from his honorary position as its royal sponsor – but that will be the least of his problems.
The last thing the embattled conservative government of Mariano Rajoy needed was a constitutional crisis, but it is now under considerable pressure to at least consider introducing age- related abdication for the monarchy.
One Rajoy minister this week described the monarchy as Spanish democracy’s “greatest asset”. The sight of their monarch killing elephants in the midst of multiple national crises has made many Spaniards doubt that asset’s value.