It was a royal birthday surprise that stunned the nation.
Spaniards are accustomed to seeing their queen at solemn state events and inauguration ceremonies, presiding over charity benefits, and receiving foreign dignitaries with her husband, King Juan Carlos de Borbon. But protocol-minded Queen Sofia — ever the image of discretion — turned 70 amid an uproar over frank comments she made in a newly released book, entitled, “Sofia, Up Close,” penned by journalist Pilar Urbano.
In these pages, there are royal darts targeting sensitive political issues: favoring teaching of religion in public schools, for example, and criticizing the Iraq war and President Bush.
Most controversially, the queen spoke out against abortion and gay marriage, both of which are legal in Spain and regulated by laws sanctioned by her husband: “If these people want to live together, dress up as bride and groom, and get married, they may have a right, or not, depending on their countries’ laws; but don’t call that marriage because it’s not ... . I can understand, accept, and respect there are people with another sexual tendency, but being proud of being gay?”
Across Spain, these remarks have provoked heated discussions about what Spaniards expect from their royals — even prompting some to question the very institution of the monarchy.
The royal family is an icon of unity and neutrality in a very split nation, and many believe they should not address issues that divide Spaniards. “The queen has wrongly allowed for opinions that are not unanimously shared by the people to be attributed to her. These words can irritate and offend many sectors,” said Charles Powell, history professor and director of the Center of Studies on the Spanish Democratic Transition at San Pablo-CEU University.
Publico, a daily newspaper, was more blunt. It published a front page photo of the queen with the words “why doesn’t she shut up?”
Queen Sofia’s husband was designated king by General Francisco Franco and crowned two days after the dictator’s death, in 1975. Many citizens feared that he would perpetuate Franco’s despotic regime. Instead, he reestablished democracy and enhanced his legitimacy through a popularly-ratified Constitution that named him head of state.
Still, there has never been a referendum to decide whether Spain should be a monarchy or a republic; the king’s status was established in the Constitution. “Spaniards were not presented with the option of a republic. There was a lot of fear then that we would return to a dictatorship. The alternatives were either democracy with the Constitution or dictatorship,” explained Felix Arana, from Civic Unity for the Republic. “Juan Carlos is a dictator’s heir, and the monarchy is anti-democratic per se.”
Polls indicate King Juan Carlos is more popular than elected officials, and that citizens trust the monarchy more than the Congress and Senate. A survey carried out in November 2008 by Center for Sociological Studies, an autonomous body dependent on the Ministry of the Presidency, showed that 61 percent of Spaniards believed the king’s role as a moderator was “important,” and 66 percent considered him a guarantor of order and stability. But a Sigma Dos survey for El Mundo newspaper last summer concluded 16 percent of Spaniards wanted a republic and 16 percent were pro-monarchy; a majority — 58 percent — said they felt “indifferent” toward the existence of the monarchy.
“As long as the king is neutral in politics, people prefer not to bother with the issue,” Arana contended. “But if the king interfered, we would have a social crisis.” Powell agreed: “The role of the king and the monarchy is not controversial. That’s why there’s not a debate.”
The king heads the armed forces and plays a leading role in international relations, representing the nation. Juan Carlos has met every U.S. president since Nixon. “Continuity is key here. The permanent figure of the king facilitates Spain’s identification abroad. He’s a great asset for the country,” argued Powell.
The royal price tag for that figurehead is presently 9 million euros a year, with no obligation to publish accounts of how the money is spent by the monarchs. Despite increasing calls for transparency, the Constitution shields the crown from such disclosure.
But those powers, and the precedent of a more than a 30-year reign, cannot protect the monarchs when they fail to live up to the high expectations of Spaniards.
Conscious of the controversy the queen’s remarks sparked, the royal family’s press officers issued an apology as soon as they made headlines. Skeptics, like Arana, welcomed Queen Sofia’s bluntness: “The more the royals talk, the more Spaniards will realize whom they really are.”