Good to be the king?

Changing of the guard: Juan Carlos (L) and Felipe.
Credit: Carlos Alvarez

MADRID, Spain — The Palacio Real, Europe's largest royal residence, has a floorspace equal to 20 soccer fields.

Rising from a rock plateau, the massive 18th-century block looms over much of the city. Clearly it was built to last.

Unfortunately for Spain's soon-to-be King Felipe VI — whose coronation is on Tuesday — the monarchy itself has less solid foundations.

"It's clear we need a republic," said Madrid economist Julio Navarro while strolling in the magnolia-filled gardens facing the palace.

"These kings and counts and marquesses can keep their titles and their carriages and whatever, live how they like,” he added. “But the head of state has to be elected.”

That kind of sentiment has been on the rise.

Sixty-two percent of Spaniards want a referendum vote on the monarchy’s future, according to a poll published by the El Pais newspaper as Prince Felipe prepared to replace his father King Juan Carlos, who announced his abdication last week.

Given the chance, most Spaniards would vote to keep the monarchy — just 37 percent support restoring the republic, the poll said. Among younger voters, however, there's a republican majority — just 42 percent want to keep the monarchy.

Within hours of Juan Carlos’ announcement he was stepping down, a social network campaign drew thousands of mostly youthful protesters to Madrid's Puerta del Sol and other big city plazas to demand a new republic.

The end of Juan Carlos' 39-year reign comes at a difficult time for Spain.

The country has been among the hardest hit by the euro zone economic crisis. Despite tentative signs of recovery, a quarter of Spain's workforce remains jobless. A youth unemployment rate of more than 53 percent has created a so-called lost generation seething with discontent.

Beyond economics, the country’s unity is being threatened by the government of Spain's richest region, Catalonia, which has called for a referendum on its independence in November.

Corruption scandals have added to the disgust directed toward mainstream politics.

In elections to the European Parliament last month, the governing conservative party and the main opposition socialists saw their combined score slump from 80 percent to less than half. The main beneficiaries were radical leftists and separatist groups that want to see the end of the monarchy.

The growing republican sentiment is a recent development.

Long one of Europe's most popular leaders, the young Juan Carlos was brought up to succeed Gen. Francisco Franco, groomed to prolong the dictator’s 36-year right-wing regime.

After Franco's death in 1975, however, the young king led a quick transition to democracy instead. In 1981, he helped defeat a coup attempt by right-wing officers.

Under his reign, the multi-party system flourished and Spain thrived. The economy boomed after joining the European Union in 1986. Per capita income doubled in the first five years of EU membership and again in the five years after the euro was introduced in 2002.

Society was transformed, with huge advances in women's and minority rights. Repressed under Franco, Spain's regions were given considerable autonomy to decide their own affairs. Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and other cities developed into exciting European cultural centers.

With the recent economic downturn however, 76-year-old Juan Carlos has appeared out of touch.

At the height of the economic crisis in 2012, revelations of an elephant-hunting trip the king took in Botswana outraged the public.

The safari was reportedly financed by a Saudi billionaire and the king — who headed the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature — was accompanied by a glamorous German aristocrat who denied being his mistress.

More revelations about the royals' extravagant lifestyle followed. Even more damaging was a long-running court case alleging the king's son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin was involved in embezzlement and abuse of his royal connections.

"The monarchy's standing has deteriorated rapidly," says Javier Moreno Luzon, an expert in political and social history at Madrid's Complutense University.

Among reasons, he cites the appearance of a new generation that didn’t experience the king's role in the transition to democracy, as well as attacks on the monarchy by Catalan and Basque nationalist movements.

He also points to the end of complicity between the crown and the media, and the royal family's own mistakes, including corruption. "All this has shaken the old consensus," Moreno Luzon says.

Monarchists are hoping 46-year-old Felipe can turn things around.

Setting the tone, Tuesday's coronation will be low key: a simple swearing-in ceremony in parliament with no foreign royals invited, followed by a modest party at the palace.

Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbon y de Grecia, Prince of Asturias, Gerona and Viana, Duke of Montblanc, Count of Cervera and Lord of Balaguer, has been brought up to be a thoroughly modern monarch.

He studied law and economics and has a masters degree in foreign service from Georgetown University. In 1992, Felipe represented Spain sailing in the Barcelona Olympics. He is fluent in four languages and eschewed tradition to marry photogenic TV reporter Letizia Ortiz, both a commoner and a divorcee.

For the moment, the clean-cut Felipe is popular — 57 percent believe he can restore the monarchy's lost prestige.

In his first public statement after the announcement of his father's abdication, the crown prince pledged to serve a nation that is "united and diverse" — words that went down well on both the left and the right.

More from GlobalPost: To cheer or not to cheer? Catalans face a dilemma over the World Cup

But Felipe will face hard choices.

Some want the crown to play a more pro-active role, like in the early years of his father's reign, to help guild a country where economic crisis and corruption scandals have shaken faith in politicians.

"I have republican principles, but the monarchy is a factor for unity," said Manuel Lopez, a civil servant heading for lunch near the palace. "Felipe is well prepared,” he added. “It would be good if he could help renovate the country."

Others caution that the best way to preserve Spain's throne would be for Felipe to become more like the figurehead sovereigns of northern Europe.

"I hope the new king isn’t swayed by the voices that call him to take a more active political role, as if he could solve all Spain’s problems," says Moreno Luzon, the historian.

"The most successful constitutional monarchies are those where the monarch exercises only representative and symbolic functions, like today in the UK, Benelux and Scandinavia," he said. "If the new monarch decides to intervene more actively in political life, it could be his ruin." 

Related Stories