Passing on the crown in Spain


One thing can be said with certainty about 76-year-old King Juan Carlos II of Spain, who has announced that he is abdicating in favour of his son, Crown Prince Felipe: no other monarch has played such a high profile role in a contemporary European democracy.

Many observers go further, and claim that Juan Carlos is the main architect of modern Spanish democracy. This is a view that many Spanish people find offensive. Their democracy, they say, is built, like all democracies, on the will of the people, exercised at great cost over many years in courageous opposition to the king’s great mentor, the dictator General Francisco Franco.

Nevertheless, many Spaniards are indeed deeply grateful for the king’s role in clearing the way from that dictatorship to four unprecedented decades of freedom and prosperity.

Juan Carlos undoubtedly acted with great astuteness and courage in escaping from the straitjacket in which Franco had bound him, and overseeing a transition to constitutional democracy far more peaceful – though still bloody – than anyone had imagined possible.

In that sense, there are very few European political leaders of our times who measure up to his stature. His bluff charm repeatedly disarmed the military-political elite that he helped manoeuvre from power between his accession to the throne in 1975 and the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1978.

Juan Carlos’s debt to Franco, who had defeated the democratic Second Republic in the 1936-39 civil war, was enormous. Franco had closely tutored Juan Carlos as a boy, and declared him his successor as head of state in 1969, while his father, Juan de Borbón, was living, thus making the new monarchy his own creation. But the young prince was keenly aware of the burgeoning strength of the democratic opposition.

As the historian Paul Preston has written, Juan Carlos had to stay close to Franco to get to the throne, and yet move towards democracy to keep it. He carried out that delicate balancing act with exceptionally sure footing.

He has also been widely praised for standing down the military coup that almost crushed the new democracy in 1981. Some questions remain about his real role, but one outcome was clear: the monarchy became and long remained the most popular institution in Spain.

More recently however, financial scandals involving the royal family, and personal scandals for the king himself, have severely tarnished his prestige in a Spain mired in economic, institutional and existential crises.

He has demonstrated some of his old political skill in choosing to go gracefully from office now. His heir will face different but still daunting challenges, as the recent EU elections have shown a surge in support for radical and republican options.