The Irish Times view on the self exile of Spain’s former king: A vertiginous fall from grace

Last week, Juan Carlos tried to protect the institution he had created by abandoning the country he claimed it served

 

There are few recent falls from grace quite as vertiginous as that of Juan Carlos de Borbón, Spain’s former king. For decades, he was a poster boy for constitutional monarchy. But he now finds himself abruptly in exile, officially self-imposed, and in ever-deepening personal disgrace.

Exile is not new to him. He was born in Rome in 1938, after his grandfather fled the nascent second republic seven years earlier. Spain’s young democracy was then brutally aborted by General Francisco Franco, who created a personal dictatorship rather than restoring the Bourbons.

When Franco finally groomed Juan Carlos as his own successor, he was widely considered a mere figurehead for continued military rule after Franco’s death in 1975. But as King Juan Carlos II, he proved himself a wily political operator, persuading both the heirs of the dictatorship, and the traditionally republican Spanish Left, to develop a democratic form of constitutional monarchy.

His public popularity soared in 1981, after he apparently faced down a military coup. His real relationship to that murky episode was at least ambiguous, but his position as the guarantor of Spanish democracy now seemed untouchable.

So Spain largely turned a willing blind eye to his notorious womanising, and extravagant lifestyle. And the king indeed played a significant symbolic role in Spain’s diplomacy, though allegedly making lucrative personal deals in the process.

But the misery of austerity made his extravagances intolerable. In 2012, news of a luxurious elephant-hunting holiday with his German mistress fatally eroded public affection for him.

Republicanism gained ground as scandals proliferated, leading to his abdication in favour of his son, the deeply conservative King Felipe VI, in 2014.

Still the scandals kept coming. So last week, Juan Carlos tried to protect the institution he had created by abandoning the country he claimed it served. Whether that will be sufficient to sustain it, with the republican Podemos party as minority partners in government, remains to be seen.

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