Spain’s King Juan Carlos put an end to his reign last week. With focus shifting to his son, there is an attempt to reinvigorate an institution intimately linked to the fascist regime of General Franco. In order to break with his legacy and a divided country, Spain’s democrats must now push for the return of the republic more than ever.
King Juan Carlos of Spain leaves the throne to make way for, in his own words, a new generation that can take the country to a future of peace and prosperity. The circumstances of his abdication are far from ideal. With failing health, accusations of corruption and of aloofness to the plight of the millions suffering the consequences of the country’s economic crisis, the king’s popularity is at its lowest point in his forty years of reign. The political calculation must be that his retirement can deliver a clean slate for his son to reinvigorate the monarchy. After all, he seems to be untainted by the tawdry tabloid scandals that have affected his father and sister.
Part of the process reinvigorating the monarchy is at play in every official assessment of King Juan Carlos’ reign that associates him personally with the role played in defeating the attempted coup of February 1981. Official stories of Spain’s democratic transition paint a picture of success at the heart of Europe. And yet, it is not difficult to make an alternative reading of Spanish history to suggest that the monarchy’s time is over and that the country has to face its painful recent past if it wants to move forward.
This alternative reading would suggest that the republican landslide of the 1931 elections poised a democratic majority with modern aspirations for social justice through political and social rights, against the reactionary forces represented by the church, the army, the landed oligarchy and the monarchists. The military uprising of General Franco against the democratically elected government of the second republic prefigured the horrors of WWII and signalled the beginning of a four decade-long murderous dictatorship that ruthlessly pursued and crushed those it considered enemies of its vision of Spain: united, catholic, conservative. More than 200,000 civilians would die in Franco’s prisons after the war was over with at least 50,000 executed, and many more driven into exile.
King Juan Carlos was handpicked by Franco himself to prolong in power the vision of Spain the dictator represented. Custodian of Spain’s democracy or not, King Juan Carlos’ stewardship of the troubled waters of transition only served to further legitimise this vision, encapsulated in a constitution created in the image of a Francoist ideal that forbids Catalonians and Basques from having a say on their right to self-determination. King Juan Carlos represents that Spain.
Having led the way for a managed transition to the kind of democracy dictated by those who won the civil war, Spain has been unable to reconcile the fault lines that lie at the heart of society. With many of the leading politicians of the Popular Party (PP) being the sons, daughters or grandchildren of leading members of the former Francoist political elites, the current party of government represents a sense of unchallenged and legitimised historical continuity. Only the so-called ‘Pact of Silence’, the conscious decision of keeping old historic wounds closed by never acknowledging the horrors of the Civil War, allowed the King’s democratic project to keep pace. As a result, although the European Parliament has condemned the serious violations of human rights under Franco, the Spanish government has not. Although the UN demands an investigation of the mass graves of more than 30,000 disappeared during the Franco regime, the PP remains the biggest obstacle to any systematic search for human remains. The King of Spain represents that Spain.
The result is that during his reign, Spanish democracy has progressively disintegrated into a miasma of corruption at all levels. This includes illegal party funding and sale of political favours – an issue for which the current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently survived a motion of no confidence – personal enrichment of the political elites – including the royal house – , and even state-funded terrorism. Again, Juan Carlos’ reign represents this Spain.
For years during the time King Juan Carlos has been on the throne Spaniards accepted it was best not to mention the Civil War or the legitimacy of the monarchy for fear of a return to dictatorship. For years Spanish citizens were prepared to accept the rampant corruption in the political class as long as the economy delivered jobs and improved living standards. The severe social consequences of the global financial crisis and the continuous political scandals however, have led to a reassessment of the country’s recent political history. This reassessment challenges the constitutional locks that prevent the possibility of self- determination; it challenges the official benign account of the Franco era; and it challenges the quality of the democratic settlement that came to replace the dictatorship. No wonder then that the legitimacy of the monarchy itself is being called into question.
Those who defend the status quo want us to shout: “the King has abdicated: long live the King”. However, the abdication of King Juan Carlos closes a chapter in modern Spanish history that opens the possibility for the country to confront its own divisions with the political maturity needed to reassess its recent political history. The thousands of young people in the streets waving republican flags this week constitute the best hope for political renewal. They know which way the wind of change is blowing.