Why Juan Carlos' Reign in Spain Has Become a Royal Pain

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Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty Images

Spain's King Juan Carlos chatting with his grandson Felipe Juan Froilán while waiting for Pope Benedict XVI at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid on Aug. 19, 2011

It is not the best moment to be King of Spain. Juan Carlos' son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarin is being investigated for involvement in a massive corruption scheme; and his eldest grandson just shot himself in the foot — literally. On April 9, the 13-year-old Felipe (who is known to the public by his nickname Froilán), was finishing up target practice at his father's estate, when he accidentally fired a bullet into his right foot. Because Spanish law prohibits anyone under the age of 14 from operating a firearm, the Civil Guard has now opened an investigation into the event. "Without a doubt," says journalist Mábel Galaz, who covers the Spanish royal family for El País newspaper, "this is their annus horribilis" — a reference to Queen Elizabeth II's description of 1992, the year the marriages of three of her children (including that of Charles to Diana) were breaking up and Windsor Castle caught fire.

For decades, Spain's Bourbons avoided the kind of public scrutiny and censure that bedevils other European royals. The country's media — not even the gossip rags — made few or no coy references to mistresses or financial misdoings, nor did they whisper about unseemly meeting with Arab sheiks or a special fondness for diet pills. But that reticence is beginning to change, thanks in part to recent legal scandals. And as it does, Spain's attitudes toward monarchy in general are also changing.

"There's been a willingness to accept a construction of the King as the savior of democracy," says Julián Casanova, history professor at the University of Zaragoza. "And as a result he was never subjected to public criticism." Despite the fact that he was dictator Francisco Franco's handpicked successor, Juan Carlos lent his support to parliamentary government — basically writing himself out of power — and in 1981 went on television to disavow an attempted military coup, an act that quickly helped crush it. Because of those events, says Casanova, "the media has protected him."

Yet that protection is no longer being extended in the same degree to his descendants — or at least not his descendants' spouses. In the years following her marriage to Felipe, the King's son and heir, Princess Letizia was reported to suffer from eating disorders and to have undergone plastic surgery. Critics have also questioned her fashion sense. (Two adorable children and a more modern style have since helped ease the scrutiny.) The King's eldest child Elena's 2009 divorce from the aristocrat Jaime de Marichalar scandalized sectors of this still predominantly Catholic country.

But no infractions — real or imagined — have so affected the royal family's standing as the indictment of Urdangarin. In the fall of 2011, the husband of the Infanta Cristina was officially accused of diverting millions of dollars in public funds from the Noos Institute, a nonprofit organization that he chairs, to offshore accounts. Called to testify in February of this year, Urdangarin declared his innocence. The investigation is ongoing.

The royal family has tried to distance themselves from their wayward son-in-law, a former Olympic handball champion. In December, Urdangarin was suspended from attending official functions, and in his televised Christmas speech, the King made a pointed reference that was not lost on royal watchers. "Fortunately, we live in a state of law, and any objectionable action should be tried and punished according to the law. Justice is for everyone." Although the Infanta Cristina has thus far avoided indictment, for the first time she did not join the rest of the royal family for their traditional Easter vacation last week.

Clearly, the royals are feeling the hot breath of public scrutiny. In October, a regular survey by the Center for Sociological Research showed that, for the first time in the past 17 years, trust in the royal family had fallen below the halfway mark, lower even than trust in the media. Perhaps in response, in December, the royal household made its income public for the first time (they received about $11 million in 2011, of which roughly 10% went to salaries and individual expenses). And on April 11, as the Spanish government announced massive cuts in the salaries and benefits of public workers, the royals followed suit, declaring that they would reduce their own budget by $224,000. "They're feeling obligated to have more transparency," says Casanova. "Given the situation in Spain, I don't think they had choice." (For comparison, Queen Elizabeth's royal household has an annual income of about $33 million.)

Against this backdrop, Sunday's shooting accident surely hasn't helped their image. Nor did Queen Sofia's attempt to brush off the event's significance with a grandmotherly comment: "These things happen with boys." The Civil Guard begged to differ: after calling the accident a "clamorous infraction," they have opened an investigation. If found guilty, Felipe's father, who was with him at the time, could face fines. "This was clearly an accident," says psychologist Javier Urra, Madrid's former ombudsman for youth. "But there's a sense that the royal family should set an example."

(Juan Carlos was himself involved in a tragic shooting accident as a young man. While the Bourbons lived in exile in Portugal, 18-year-old Juan Carlos was cleaning a revolver when it went off, hitting his 14-year-old brother Alfonso in the forehead, killing him.)

Does their at least occasional failure to set an example mean that monarchy itself is in danger? "Absolutely not," says journalist Galaz. "People here still have a ton of respect for the King who got us through [the attempted coup on] February 23." But with the King now 74 years old, and democracy firmly established in Spain, it remains to be seen whether they will transfer their loyalty to his son. Until now, the 44-year-old Felipe, who was has a master's degree from Georgetown University, has comported himself well. "The bad news is that there's a lot of noise around the monarchy these days, and that the Infantas Elena and Cristina are no longer considered trustworthy," says Casanova. "The good news is that their brother is."