Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Abdication And Uncertainty

Over the course of almost forty years, Spain has been defined by three acts. They have each involved the one person. Juan Carlos I de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicillias. Three dates - 22 November 1975, 24 February 1981, 2 June 2014 - mark the timeline of an extraordinary man: his proclamation following the death of Franco; his televised order that stopped the coup attempt; his abdication.

"The Crown, the symbol of the country's permanence and unity, cannot tolerate in any way the actions or attitudes of people who forcibly seek to disrupt the democratic process."

With these words, and others, King Juan Carlos stopped the coup dead in its tracks. Democracy, the monarchical democracy, was assured. Juan Carlos received the gratitude of a nation. He was its hero.

Juan Carlos has been, for many years since 1981, the glue that has bound Spain together. He has done so because of the enduring gratitude of the people and because of his own popularity. His abdication, attributed to his declining health, is a sorry end. His health cannot hide the reasons for that popularity having declined. The elephant-hunting trip to Botswana might have been overlooked. The wretched Urdangarin could not be and cannot be overlooked. Corruption had crept as far as the gates of the Palacio de la Zarzuela. Whatever the King's knowledge of the Urdangarin affair, he was damaged. Princess Cristina's court appearance, lauded as indicating an openness to democratic legal processes, nonetheless caused further damage.

The dynamics that have conspired to bring about the abdication are, however, less important than what follows. Crown Prince Felipe will become monarch. Only the second of the democratic era. His is an onerous task. The King's abdication marks a potential watershed. The glue that bound the nation together may have been losing its strength, but now there will be questions as to whether it will be so weakened that things fall apart.

Spain cannot rid itself of its past. The nation will know about the monarchy before Franco, about the frequent instability, about the exile of Alfonso XIII in April 1931. He never formally abdicated, but he had in all but the deed, and he was then accused of high treason. Alfonso's fate was sealed by the establishment of the Republic. Just one of the questions that will now be asked is whether Spain wishes to head back in the direction of Republicanism.

These are very different times to the 1930s, but there can be little escaping the fact that the monarchy is (more was now) popular purely because of Juan Carlos. As his popularity has waned, so the relevance of the monarchy has been placed more in the spotlight. There are other factors.

Look again at the words Juan Carlos spoke in 1981. "The symbol of the country's permanence and unity." Catalonia knows otherwise. Is it coincidence that Mariano Rajoy had, just prior to the abdication announcement, indicated that he might be open to a Constitutional change that would in effect grant Catalonia greater autonomy? Such a shift in attitude might raise again the spectre of a threat from the military of the type Zapatero confronted when he was being amenable to Catalonian demands.

Times are different, but memories are awfully long, those of both the Republican left and the far right. The Francoists have never forgiven Juan Carlos for his apparent betrayal of the Franco legacy. This is just one attitude that Felipe will now face. His really is an onerous task. He has to convince a sceptical public while manoeuevring through the minefields and traps of Spain's politics - its left, right, Republicanism, independence and nationalism.

That Felipe has cut an increasingly impressive figure, not least on the international stage, typified by his assured presentation on behalf of Madrid's Olympic bid, is to his credit. He has stepped out of the enormous shadow cast by his father. He has the appearance of modernity and the companionship of the commoner divorcee Letizia. But their marriage is prone to rumours, and Letizia has not always enjoyed a supportive press. 

Despite this, is there reason to believe that the monarchy is threatened? It is most unlikely, certainly while the two main political parties have anything to say on the matter. But the politics are less certain than they were, as was witnessed at the European elections. Podemos, in responding to the news of the abdication, said on its Facebook page yesterday: "We said that the results of 25 May would open a cycle of historical political change in our country. We did not imagine that it would start so quickly."

Believing that the results influenced the abdication decision seem pretty far-fetched, but such a belief is indicative of the uncertainty that the abdication creates. Will 2 June go down as a truly momentous day in Spain's history or just the final act of a great man?

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