As news spread of the abdication of the Spanish king Juan Carlos on June 2, a strange rustling sound could be heard across Barcelona. Hard to work out at first, it soon became clear what it was. It was the city — the capital of Catalonia — laughing.
In the city’s thousands of bars, people were hooting with glee at the wave of tweets that the king’s decision to abdicate in favour of his son, Felipe, was provoking. Probably the favourite in my local bar of young and old unemployed, read: “With Mariano Rajoy [Spanish prime minister] in charge, even the king gets to lose his job.”
That tweet was — perhaps unintentionally — perceptive. The final timing of the abdication, which Juan Carlos had persistently denied he was planning, was the result of consultation between the People’s Party (PP) prime minister, Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) opposition leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, and the king himself.
Indeed, Rajoy came on television to announce Juan Carlos’s departure before the king came on TV to gave his farewell address.
The abdication came just eight days after the May 25 European election results, which severely shook the bipartisan system propping up Spain’s political and economic establishment. Together, the PP and PSOE mustered only 49.5% of the vote. The vote for left forces, both at the level of the Spanish state and in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia where there is strong sentiment for national self-determination from the Spain, soared.
The combined vote of the Plural Left, based around the United Left and newcomer Podemos, xceeded the PSOE’s in 24 of the country’s 40 largest cities.
The king’s departure topped a week of other “abdications”. The first to fall on his sword was PSOE leader Rubalcaba himself, who convened an emergency congress of the PSOE for July and announced he would not stand for re-election.
He was followed by Patxi Lopez, general secretary of the PSOE’s Basque Country affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Euskadi (PSE), and Roberto Jiménez, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Navarra (PSN).
The rise of left forces like United Left and Podemos set off alarm bells within the establishment: if the embattled parliamentary monarchy that replaced the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s was to maximise its survival chances, the already embarrassing king would have to go.
Yet, given the intensity of popular anger and contempt here, it is entirely possible that this intended “circuit-breaker” will turn into its opposite — the detonator of a vast mass movement that speeds up the demise of Spain’s pseudo-democratic regime by demanding that the people get to vote on whether they want a monarchy.
By the evening of June 2, the main squares of between 70 and 80 Spanish cities and towns were full of people — young and old, unionists and indignados, pensioners and students — demanding their right to decide.
That movement, and the pro-republican political forces that support it, is already dramatising the vast gulf between the political balance in the Spanish parliament and the real balance of social sentiment. And the main victim of that contradiction will not be the PP, but the supposedly republican PSOE.
Royal road to ruin
How did the Spanish monarchy, which for three decades easily rated as the country’s most popular institution, sink to the point where it now scores less than four out of 10 in opinion polls?
The king was first nominated by dictator Francisco Franco as his successor in 1969. But he swapped sides when he sniffed the change in the political wind during the final years of the dictatorship. He overcame his initial unpopularity six years after Franco's 1975 death, in the midst of the fraught “transition to democracy”.
Until then, Juan Carlos had been cold-shouldered by the Francoists as a traitor and spurned by republicans and masses of ordinary people as a creature of the dictator. That changed after he appeared on television to disown a military coup attempt in 1981.
The perception was cultivated that “the people’s king” had saved democracy. His actual role in the affair, however, has yet to be established and the archives covering it are still secret.
The three-decade popularity of the monarchy, coinciding with growth that supposedly turned Spain into “a normal modern European state”, was also helped by an informal “hands off” agreement with the media and by Juan Carlos’s matey and avuncular manner. The love affair lasted until about 2007.
Since then, a chain of scandals has driven the popularity of the Spanish royal house through the floor. The king and the royal house have been caught in a number of sordid imbroglios:
· In July 2007, the National Court ordered the pulping of the entire run of the satirical magazine Jueves, which featured a cover showing prince Felipe making love to his wife while saying “if you get pregnant, this will be the most work I’ll have done in my life”. That ban only stimulated the desire of journalists to uncover the real goings-on in the royal court.
· In 2010, the king’s son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, was shown to have set up an institute that flogged sports and cultural conventions carrying the royal brand name to regional (especially PP) governments at an exhorbitant price, with tax evasion measures thrown in as an extra. Urdangarin has been charged with misuse of public funds, fraud, tax evasion and perverting the course of justice. Cristina, the king’s daughter and Urdagarin’s wife, has been questioned by the investigating magistrate as to how much she knew about this scam, and the establishment is presently waiting nervously to see if she too will be charged.
· In 2012, Spain learned that Juan Carlos had fractured his hip. It later emerged this happened while he was in Botswana hunting elephants. A photo of the king standing proudly before a dead elephant revolted millions, leading to the World Wildlife Fund’s Spanish branch removing him as its honorary president.
· In March last year, it was revealed that the inheritance of 6 million euros that Juan Carlos received from his father was held in three Swiss bank accounts. When opposition MPs asked what the Spanish treasury was doing about what looked a blatant case of tax evasion, they were told the law did not allow disclosure of such information. Similar requests about the king’s shareholdings in Spanish businesses have also been declined.
· In September last year, the carefully cultivated myth that the king was scrupulously non-partisan and “king of all the Spanish” was exploded when the mayor of the Catalan city of Martorell revealed that Juan Carlos had button-holed him at what was supposed to be a purely ceremonial gathering, and abused him over last year's 400-kilometre long human chain in support of Catalan's right to decide whether to remain part of Spain.
Combined with a string of minor incidents — like slapping a royal chauffeur in the face for parking in the wrong place — these scandals brought Juan Carlos to the point of incurable disrepute.
An April poll by the Sondea Institute showed 85% of believed the royal family was involved in cases of corruption, 55% supported Felipe becoming king, while 43.6% opposed any continuation of the monarchy at all.
A majority of the court had been trying for months to convince a stubborn Juan Carlos to hand the baton to his son. It seems highly probable that what finally persuaded the reluctant monarch was the reality, revealed by the European elections, that there was no guarantee the next national election would produce a pro-monarchist majority to ensure the survival of the Bourbon dynasty.
Felipe the Brief?
The panicked Spanish elites are now placing an enormous burden on the shoulders of prince Felipe, who is set to become King Felipe VI on June 19.
The media spin about the prince emphasises that he is tall, handsome, easy-going and relaxed in any sort of social milieu — “even sceptics are charmed”. He is described as “modern”, marrying for love, not royal connection. His wife, former TV journalist Letizia Ortiz, is a commoner (“granddaughter of a taxi-driver”) who is “known to speak her mind”.
The prince is the first Bourbon monarch since the dynasty assumed the Spanish throne in 1700 to have a university degree. Besides Spanish, he is fluent in English and French, and has acceptable Catalan. He has not the slightest hint of association with the corrupt practices of his brother-in-law Inuaki Urdangarin.
In normal circumstances, such a CV should ensure Felipe was a ssuccessful monarch, especially as he makes a point of always speaking in Catalan when in Catalonia. This wins brownie points in a society where the upper classes have usually speak Spanish. His attempts to speak Basque, however, are best passed over in polite silence.
Unfortunately for Felipe and his backers, these are not normal times. He is already being called Felipe the Brief in certain cynical circles.
After six years of crisis, the monarchy is seen by many as the quintessence of a corrupt and untouchable economic and political regime that has brought misery to millions. The appeal to the monarchy’s democratic credentials and to the 1978 constitution that “legalised” it as integral to the Spanish state just doesn’t wash with many of the 68% of people now living who didn’t get to vote on that constitution.
As for Catalonia, it will take a lot more than charming royal platitudes spoken in Catalan to even begin to stop the vast tide of support for a Catalan right to decide (also confirmed by the European election vote).
The latest evidence of establishment nervousness in this extremely delicate moment was the withdrawal by its publishers of the front cover of the latest Jueves, showing Felipe receiving a shit-covered crown. This provoked the resignation of the satirical magazine’s longest-standing cartoonists.
A broadening movement
In the political context, the demand for a referendum on the monarchy has enormous force. Like the demand for Catalonia’s right to decide, it makes people feel that there is a chance to have their save over their future.
Local councillors from pro-republican parties have already been moving that their council formally express support for a national vote on the continuation of the monarchy.
The Galician town of Teo, run by the left-nationalist force ANOVA, led the way, adopting such a resolution the day after the king’s announcement of abdication. Teo was followed by the council of Pamplona, the capital of Navarra in the Basque Country.
The Pamplona motion was supported by the United Left, the Basque left-nationalist coalition EH Bildu, the Navarra nationalist NaBai and even by the more conservative PSN. In other councils, social-democratic councillors have also voted in favour.
The strength of the sentiment is raising tensions within the PSOE, already shaken by its poor showing on May 25. Local PSOE leaders, sensing the sentiment among their remaining support base, are supporting calls for a referendum.
To date, three national PSOE MPs have demanded a conscience vote on the abdication legislation that will come before parliament next week. However, central PSOE leaders remain unwavering in their “institutional loyalty”.
The pro-monarchist parties, including the “rebellious” Union for Progress and Democracy, have a majority in that parliament of 86%, guaranteeing the prince will become Felipe VI.
The question, however, is the political price they will pay for such a stance.
To dramatise the gulf between parliament and society, and to raise pressure on PSOE MPs, the Plural Left (the United Left, Initiative for Catalonia and the Aragonist Union) and the Mixed Group (containing the Basque left-nationalist Amaiur and the Catalan centre-left Republican Left of Catalunya) have forced an open vote on the transition legislation.
This means that every PSOE MP will have to stand and one by one make clear their support for the continuation of the monarchy.
Not surprisingly, the two main right-nationalist forces, the Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), who in the past have nearly always supported the PP and the PSOE on major questions of Spanish state structures, will both be abstain.
Saving the Spanish sate?
In 1981, Juan Carlos saved the monarchy by opposing the February 23 military coup. This year, a political earthquake on that scale may be needed to the monarchy again.
The big headache for the establishment is finding a threat from which the new king can be portrayed as saving the Spanish state. The potential candidates are not being cooperative. The Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) is disarming while Catalan push for independence is scrupulously democratic and providing an inspiring example of how a nation can fight for its right to self-determination.
The popular reaction to the king’s abdication has also brought into sharper focus the outlines of the only possible alternative alliance for government in the Spanish state — one that brings together all-Spanish left, left-nationalist, green and left-republican forces.
The United Left and seven other left groups, including the Anticapitalist Left and green party Equo, have initiated a “Referendum Now!” call. It is open to all forces supporting the right to decide and proposes an ongoing wave of mobilisations, beginning on June 7 in Madrid.
The Plural Left will also move that the Spanish parliament authorise a non-binding referendum to reveal the form of state the peoples of Spain want.
Will these initiatives mark the next important step down the road that leads to the definitive end of the monarchy and the beginning of building a Third Spanish Republic? The next six months of struggle will be decisive.
[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. A longer version of this article will appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]