Spain Ex-King’s Exile Reignites Questions on Monarchy’s Future

In select circles in Madrid, the rumor had been making the rounds for weeks: Beset by a financial scandal that would not go away, former King Juan Carlos I was preparing to go into exile.The whispers were proven right in spectacular fashion when the ex-monarch left Spain this week.In a letter published on the royal family’s website, Juan Carlos told his son, King Felipe VI, he was leaving the country due to the “public repercussions of certain episodes of my past private life”.Stunned Spaniards were left to play a guessing game as to the whereabouts of the man who had reigned over them for nearly 40 years until he abdicated in 2014.Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
A newsrack displays copies of El Nacional newspaper with a page one headline that reads in Spanish: “The whereabouts of King Juan Carlos are unknown, but it is said that he is in the DR,” Aug. 4, 2020.Reigniting an old debateIn the wake of Juan Carlos’ abrupt departure, it has prompted a surge in republican sentiment in a country which has historically maintained a complex relationship with the institution of monarchy.Across the country there are 637 squares, streets or other public edifices named after Juan Carlos but since the 82-year-old’s departure, many of these were at the center of public anger towards the royal family.Students in Madrid called for the King Juan Carlos University to change its name, with an online petition garnering over 41,000 signatures by Wednesday.“Corruption cases surrounding the royal family keep appearing, torpedoing the image of a monarchy that had been presented to us as ‘wholesome’ and ‘humble,’” the petition read.In Gijón, in northern Spain, authorities said they would change the name of its Juan Carlos I avenue because they said the name of the former monarch “does not represent the institutional, moral and democratic values of our society anymore”, according to spokeswoman Marina Pineda.Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, said the departure of Juan Carlos would allow King Felipe to reign in a better way as the country confronted a period of instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.However, Pablo Iglesias, leader of the far-left Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in the coalition government with the Socialists, condemned the former king’s exit while he faced a possible investigation in Spain.“Sooner or later, young people in our country will start a republic in Spain,” he added.A poll for the right-wing ABC newspaper, which supports the monarchy, found 68% thought Juan Carlos was wrong to leave the country.Javier Sanchez-Junco, a lawyer for the former king, said his client was not trying to escape justice by going into exile and would remain available to prosecutors. A view of the Royal Palace is pictured in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 4, 2020.Scandals The fall of a monarch who is respected by some in Spain for ushering in democracy after the death of longtime ruler General Francisco Franco began in 2018 in Switzerland when a prosecutor started an investigation into the ex-king’s murky finances.The prosecutor opened an investigation into Juan Carlos’ ex-mistress Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and the former king’s lawyer and financial adviser, who are both based in Geneva. All deny any wrongdoing. The former king maintained a relationship with Sayn-Wittgenstein, a London businesswoman, between 2005 and 2009.The Swiss investigation, probing possible money laundering relating to a $100 million ‘gift’ to Juan Carlos, from the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2008, is ongoing. Juan Carlos is also being investigated for the first time by Spain’s Supreme Court over his role in alleged kickbacks to a high-speed train deal in Saudi Arabia.In March, after British newspaper The Daily Telegraph revealed that Juan Carlos and his son were both named as beneficiaries of a Panama-based fund started in 2008 with $100 million-dollars described as a “donation” from Saudi Arabia, King Felipe released a statement renouncing any financial inheritance from his father. Juan Carlos was also stripped of his royal allowance.Amid an almost daily drip feed of media revelations about his father, Felipe VI was coming under increasing pressure from Spain’s left-wing government to distance himself from the ex-monarch. Finally a deal was struck.Kings going into exile is nothing new in a country where Spaniards have long maintained an uneasy relationship with their monarchs. Alfonso XIII, Juan Carlos’ grandfather was forced into exile in 1931 after Spaniards voted for the Second Republic. The former monarch lived part of his young life in Italy, then Portugal before returning to Spain to become the nominated successor to General Francisco Franco.A man wearing a face mask walks past a graffiti by artist El Primo de Bansky of former Spanish King Juan Carlos in a street of Valencia, on Aug. 6, 2020.Popular figure Juan Carlos was lauded for helping to uphold a fragile new democracy after the death of Franco in 1975.In 1981, when armed police fired shots over the heads of terrified MPs in the Spanish parliament in an attempted coup d’etat, Juan Carlos made a televised address to the nation backing democracy and faced down the plotters. The coup failed.Despite his love of bullfighting, yachts and women to whom he was not married, the king was a popular figure.All this started to go wrong in 2012 when Juan Carlos had to be flown back to Spain after injuring himself during a secret elephant hunting safari in Botswana while in the company of Sayn-Wittgenstein. It caused outrage in a country struggling to survive a deep recession.A resident waves a Spanish Republican flag against Spain’s former monarch, King Juan Carlos I, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Aug. 5, 2020.However, El País, the left-wing newspaper, said this was not the moment for Spain to suffer a seismic shake-up by abolishing its monarchy.”Those who take advantage of the fall from grace of Juan Carlos I to reopen the debate on the monarchy must ask themselves whether beyond the legitimacy of the republican demand it now has sufficient parliamentary consensus to translate into a constitutional reform. The data indicates otherwise,” it said in an editorial.Some commentators believe a republic would not be the answer for a country riven by divisive politics.“I think the monarchy is not under threat because the alternative – a Third Republic – would be much worse,” William Chislett, a journalist who interviewed Juan Carlos’ father Don Juan in 1977, told VOA.“Spain is such a polarized country that a conservative or socialist president would be a disaster. What may happen next is Juan Carlos may give back some of the money which is involved in this but that will not happen soon.”Pilar Eyre, a writer and royal expert, doubted Spain would become a republic because the country’s two main parties supported the monarchy.“The two main parties, the Socialists and the (conservative) People’s Party are in favor of the monarchy and it needs their support to change the constitution and allow a referendum on a republic,” she told VOA.A spokesperson for the royal household declined to comment.When Felipe came to the throne in 2014, he promised a “renewed monarchy for new times” and vowing to “listen, understand, warn and advise”.The Spanish king faces an uphill struggle to convince many of his subjects of the validity of a monarchy.   

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