On June 2, 2014, Juan Carlos I, since 1975 the king of Spain, announced that he would abdicate in favor of his son, Felipe. He’s officially abdicating due to ill-health, but it comes in the face of increasing unpopularity, and he may have realized that it was just time to get out.

That would be very much along the lines of the way the man has operated in the course of his long, and very unusual career. He’s always been very good at responding to political trends.

It’s a rather sad story, though, because the king is not just some foolish old anachronism. Juan Carlos may have gotten a little embarrassing in his old age, as royalty often appears when caught unprepared, but he wasn’t a trivial figure. He was actually quite politically important. He probably saved Spanish democracy.

In recent years, as Spain’s economy suffered, he’s become unpopular.

In 2011 his son-in-law was accused of diverting public funds to himself through various offshore accounts via a nonprofit organization he ran.

And then in April, 2012, the king had to be flown back to Madrid after he fractured his hip while on elephant-hunting trip in Botswana, accompanied by German aristocrat rumored to be his mistress. One magazine estimated that the trip probably cost the equivalent of about $58,000, twice the average Spanish annual salary.

Spanish officials pointed out that Spanish taxpayers didn’t fund the trip. A Syrian businessman was bankrolling the vacation, which wasn’t terribly reassuring. This was the sort of holiday that suggested a monarch in 1912, not 2012.

At the time unemployment in Spain stood at 23 percent. Cayo Lara Moya of the United Left party said in a statement that the whole thing “demonstrated a lack of ethics and respect toward many people in this country who are suffering a lot.” Other political leaders called for abdication directly.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

The king’s story is a rather remarkable one. He was born in 1938 to the royal family of Spain, but they were in exile then, in Rome. His grandfather, Alfonso XIII, was deposed in coup in 1931 and the Spanish Bourbons was living as refugees then, while Spain was in the midst of the country’s civil war.

Francisco Franco’s right-wing Nationalists prevailed by 1939 and he and his backers held the country until his death. But Franco, rare among the world’s dictators, had the foresight to realize that he should designate a successor. Despite his own control over the country Spain was historically a kingdom. And it would get a king when he died.

He found the next monarch in Juan Carlos, an apparently amenable, handsome young man willing to be taught. So Franco groomed the man to take over when he died. He set up a program of study for the young prince.

Juan Carlos moved to Spain in 1948 and attended Spanish schools before joining the army in 1955. And the prince followed the rules, showed up at interminable military ceremonies and public events, resplendent in his army uniform. (Not that there weren’t other options. Juan Carlos’s cousin, Alfonso, tried to increase his odds for succession by marrying Franco’s granddaughter, but the dictator stuck with the original choice.) He married a Greek princess in 1962 and had three children. He maintained official support for the regime, praising Franco and his polices whenever he appeared at public events, which surely must have been rather awkward.


Franco apparently required the prince to swear loyalty to Spain’s only political party, Franco’s fascist Movimiento Nacional, as a condition of his being heir-apparent. This Juan Carlos did without any outward hesitation. In 1969 the Spanish parliament declared him Franco’s successor.

Juan Carlos moved with his family into the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid, kept quiet, and waited, patiently, for Europe’s last fascist dictator to die.

When Franco finally did, in 1975, the transition back to monarchy was relatively smooth.

The king had apparently been meeting with democratic activists since the 1960s. In a referendum in 1978 the country approved the Spanish Constitution and established a constitutional monarchy.

After dodging a 1981 military coup attempt by some of Franco’s supporters, using a public television broadcast while wearing his uniform as Captain-General of the Spanish armed forces and urging support for the country’s elected government, he stepped aside and let the country’s citizens govern themselves, which they did more or less successfully.

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Some say it might be time to do away with the monarchy altogether. As Uri Friedman put it at the Atlantic:

The popularity of the Spanish monarchy and king has undoubtedly suffered in recent years; an El Mundo poll in January found that only 50 percent of respondents supported the monarchy as a system of government for Spain. But the trend is most pronounced among young people. The same poll revealed that 79 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds wanted Juan Carlos to abdicate in favor of Felipe, compared with 65 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds, 59 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds, and 47 percent of those older than 65.

The question is whether Spanish youth will be content with a younger, more popular, less scandal-tainted king, or whether they will demand significant changes to the monarchy or even its outright abolition.

And as Ishaan Tharoor wrote in the Washington Post:

Europe’s dozen surviving monarchies are mostly fusty, toothless institutions. European royals ski and spawn gaudy weddings; they are not scepter-waving potentates in any real sense. The Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel likens them to pandas, “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.”

Across the continent, a new generation of princes and princesses have been at pains to style themselves as frugal, ordinary citizens. But this betrays a weird tension: If the royals are just like anybody else, why do they need to exist? Ordinary citizens are not blessed with a divine right to kingship. Ordinary citizens do not exist on public expense. It’s the monarchs’ role to be living anachronisms. But can Europe afford that?

But in most parliamentary democracies the head of state is a powerless figurehead. It makes about as much sense for him to be a royal figure with a longstanding historic and dynastic connection to the country as for him to be an elected but impotent politician of some sort, the way the president is in a country like Israel or Germany.

The king of Spain’s reign shows that the monarchy has been very good for the country. What Franco wanted in the 1960s is perhaps not really what Spain wanted anymore in 2014, not that Juan Carlos is the same person anyway. He was a crafty modernizing reformer from ancient European dynasty who knew what Spain should have, and then gracefully ushered himself into political irrelevance, exactly where a parliamentary head of state should exist. But by 2014 he’s perhaps not really so useful for the country anymore.

The Spanish king’s family came to Spain in 1700 when a French prince inherited the foreign throne at the age of 16. This king, the cripplingly anxious and paranoid Filipe V, despite his struggles holding on to power—his ascension was controversial and resulted in a war over Europe’s fear of French power—always believed himself to rule by divine right. Porque tal es mi voluntad, “for such is my will,” was used on all royal decrees during his reign, reflecting the Bourbon belief in their rule by divine right.

The upheavals of the 20th century, however, indicate that the king now serves, essentially, at the pleasure of the Spanish people. The king understood, perhaps better than other head of state in 2014, that he was only employed as long as he was useful to Spain.

Both his grandfather and his brother-in-law, Greece’s Constantine II, were deposed. He may simply realize what many other very talented men figure out after many years of success in the same job: maybe he’s just not at the top of his game anymore. He had a role to play and now it’s time to go.

The world’s royal families are celebrities. Their every moves are followed by journalists. Over time this gets a little uncomfortable, and the possibilities for scandal are intense, particularly if in your leisure time you favor hunting elephants in Africa. (In retrospect elephant hunting in a colonial outpost seems like exactly the sort of thing one might expect an elderly Bourbon trained by a right-wing dictator to do. Big game hunting, with a German aristocrat mistress, in Africa. One wonders if they also smoked innumerable cigarettes, dressed for dinner, and possibly took cocaine with silver syringes.)

His heir, Prince Filipe—named for the founder of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain—who will become Filipe VI later this month, is different.

The prince was born and grew up in Madrid, was a member of the Olympic sailing team at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and has a master’s degree from Georgetown. He is married to Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, once a television journalist with CNN. He is a former military officer apparently untainted by any scandal.

There’s little to indicate so far what his reign will be like, what Spain’s Future in the European Union will hold, or if he’ll prove as adroit as his father.

But Juan Carlos is very politically adept and he gave Spain exactly what it needed. He was not just a representative of a “fusty, toothless institution.” He demonstrated exactly what a head of state can do well: represent the country and its citizens above its politics, and be a symbol of stability in a time of turmoil.

He appeared just as conservative as Franco demanded, and proved just as liberal as Spain wanted; we’ll have no more like him.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer