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A Dead Elephant Was the Beginning of the End for Spain’s King

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Two years ago, after Spain’s King Juan Carlos had fallen during a hunting trip in Botswana and broken his hip, Spanish news outlets repeatedly showed a photograph from the trip. The image shows the King posing, rifle over his shoulder, in front of a dead elephant, the beast’s massive head having been propped casually against a tree. Juan Carlos known to be fond of hunting, like many Spaniards. But elephants? The fallout in a country where unemployment was about to hit 25% was such that the word abdication has been in the air ever since. That made it something less than a surprise when, earlier today, he announced that he intends to step aside in favor of his son, Crown Prince Felipe.

The King had tried, and failed, to undo the damage done by the photograph. Once he was able to leave the Madrid hospital to which he had been transported from Botswana, he made an unprecedented apology for a trip that had been kept entirely secret — even from the Spanish government of the day. But it was a little late: the Spanish media had broken a long-held pact with the Royal Household and was now publishing the name of the woman reputed to have been the King’s lover for several years, a German aristocrat named Corinna Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. She had been at the hunting camp in Botswana at the time of the King’s accident, the papers reported.

All this took place amid a brewing scandal surrounding the King’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, who early in 2012 had been questioned by a judge on the suspicion of having misappropriated millions of euros in public funds along with his partner at the nonprofit Nóos Institute, a PR and sporting events firm. Corruption, increasingly connected with the country´s political parties and labor unions, was now tainting the institution that had successfully piloted Spain’s transition to democracy — the royal family. Having been named by the dictator Francisco Franco as his successor at the head of the Spanish state, Juan Carlos de Borbón oversaw a series of reforms that shocked the country’s fascist regime after Franco’s death in 1975. Adolfo Suárez, the King’s chosen Prime Minister, legalized the Socialist and Communist parties. Democratic elections followed. Then on the night of Feb. 23, 1981, Juan Carlos took to the airwaves to urge the armed forces not to back a coup after armed members of the Civil Guard had stormed Congress.

Despite doubts from some quarters over the King’s exact role during the 1981 attempted coup, Juan Carlos had become a symbol of a new and democratic Spain. Many Spaniards declared themselves to be antimonarchists but supporters of Juan Carlos. But even before the Botswana debacle — which was to cost the King so much more than the renunciation of his honorary post as president of WWF-Spain — the royal family’s popularity was beginning to wane. A 2011 poll by the state-run CIS institute saw the monarchy get a fail grade of less than five out of ten for the first time. In an April 2013 CIS poll, the royal family’s approval rating slumped to an all-time low of 3.68 out of 10.

In a recorded speech broadcast two and a half hours after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s initial announcement of the abdication process on Monday morning, King Juan Carlos revealed little about the reasons behind his decision. After Rajoy had spoken of an “unpayable debt of gratitude” owed to the King by Spaniards, the monarch himself commented that the country’s “economic crisis has left deep scars in the social fabric,” in an apparent acknowledgement that discontent at corruption and a lack of transparency could no longer be ignored by any institution, including the Royal Household.

Seizing on the idea that Spain is ready for a new transition, the leader of Podemos, a leftist party that came from nowhere to claim eight percent of the vote in last month’s European elections in Spain, called for a referendum on the monarchy. “This abdication will accelerate the decomposition of the political regime of 1978,” Pablo Iglesias, the party’s leader, told the newspaper El País. “If the government believes that [Prince] Felipe has the confidence of the people, it should be put to the test at the polls.”

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