It’s not easy being king.
Today’s constitutional monarchs wield a different sort of influence than did their historical predecessors, but that doesn’t make it any easier to do so wisely. Over the past four decades, King Juan Carlos of Spain has proved that getting it right still matters.
As I observed in this space a few years ago, Juan Carlos was the right king at the right time in 1981, when the late Francisco Franco’s supporters attempted a coup. Juan Carlos, who had only reigned for six years at that point, surprised everyone when he refused to acquiesce, denouncing the attempt to interfere with Spain’s newly democratic government. His televised speech rallied the military to his side and ended the coup, allowing Spain’s democracy to flourish.
Now, Juan Carlos has made another hard choice on his nation’s behalf. Recognizing that his time has passed, Juan Carlos announced this week that he will abdicate, making way for son, Crown Prince Felipe.
We should admire him for recognizing that he is no longer the right king for this time. Such a decision is never easy. Even in ordinary commercial life, many entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs entrench themselves in the corner office (the business equivalent of the royal palace) well past the point where they would better serve their people by leaving.
Though once extremely popular, Juan Carlos’ image in Spain has recently suffered from a combination of economic woes, personal health issues and scandals centered on members of his family. Health and scandal converged in 2012, when a secret elephant-hunting trip in Botswana became news after Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to be flown home for emergency surgery.
A royal on an elephant hunt in Africa would not have raised many eyebrows in the 1970s, when Juan Carlos became king. But clearly, it is hard for many Westerners to accept today, for many reasons. The primary one is sympathy for the elephants themselves, who struggle for survival in the wild amid habitat loss and horrific poaching. Some Spaniards also felt the royal hunting expedition proved Juan Carlos was out of touch with the economic troubles of his people.
Juan Carlos also shared the woes of other modern royals who found themselves dealing with misbehavior by family members that undermines the respect on which all constitutional monarchs depend. His son-in law Inaki Urdangarin and his daughter Infanta Cristina have faced a criminal inquiry over embezzled public funds, as well as alleged fraud and money-laundering. The near-daily headlines in Spain related to the case have done substantial damage to the monarchy on a popular level.
Juan Carlos’ abdication follows those of two European monarchs last year: Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Albert II of Belgium. And while the monarchy remains relatively popular in the U.K., Prince Charles is decidedly not, with many Britons expressing the opinion he should step aside in favor of his son William. But whatever generation holds the titles, questions remain about the place of royals in modern Europe. It is hard to imagine that a European monarch today would be called upon to handle a situation comparable the one Juan Carlos faced in 1981.
Even as the world changed around him, and despite his own mistakes and those of his relatives, Juan Carlos did not hang on to the crown so long that his country, or his reputation, suffered irreparably. He will still be remembered as the pivotal figure who cemented Spain’s transition to democracy, and thus its place among the advanced economies of Europe.
When today’s recession is a distant memory, Spaniards will look back with pride, and the rest of the world with admiration, at the king who risked himself to speak up for the common man.