New Challenges to Spain's King

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Eloy Alonso / Reuters

King Juan Carlos delivers a speech defending the monarchy of Spain.

Through a miraculous combination of political valor, public deference and children who know how to behave themselves, Spanish King Juan Carlos and his wife, Queen Sofia, have long enjoyed a level of prestige and respect of which most modern European monarchs can only dream. Until recently.

Last month, young Catalan nationalists publicly set fire to photos of the visiting monarchs in Girona. The perpetrators were arrested, but they inspired a string of royal photo burnings in other parts of the region. In otherwise democratic Spain, an "attack on the dignity of the monarchy" is still a crime and the burnings, along with a few other anti-monarchical incidents, have sparked something of a crisis. Is this the beginning of the end for Spanish royal reverence?

Since coming to power three decades ago, Juan Carlos and Sofia have enjoyed a generally wide popularity. Franco's hand-picked successor, Juan Carlos surprised the nation when the dictator died in 1975 by lending his support to parliamentary government — basically writing himself out of power — and later, in 1981, by courageously appearing on the floor of Congress to disavow an attempted military coup. "Juan Carlos played such a sterling role during the Transition [to democracy] that it basically shelved questions about the nature of the new political regime," says Paul Preston, professor of Spanish history at the London School of Economics and author of a biography of the King. Since then, the royal family has dedicated itself largely to charity drives, hospital inaugurations, and promoting Spanish interests abroad.

But there are signs that public deference is fading. In the spring, the Catalan Republican Left party promoted a bill that would require the royal family, which annually receives around $10 million in public funds, to turn over their financial records. That motion was defeated, but it didn't stop the same party from last month raising a new proposal that would shift the position of Commander in Chief, which historically has belonged to the King, from the monarch to the Prime Minister. Beyond the maneuverings of an avowedly republican party, other signs of change have appeared. In July, a weekly satirical magazine called El Jueves published a cartoon that depicted the heir to the throne, Prince Felipe, having sex with his wife. Over the summer, leaders of ten Andalusian towns signed a motion in the regional parliament that would "situate the democratic fight for a republic on the political agenda."

Why, after more than 30 years, would the King come under fire now? At a time when nationalist sentiment is running high in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia, it makes sense that the monarchy, that most Spanish of symbols, would come under questioning. But a broader change is afoot as well. After decades of silence about its Civil War and 40-year dictatorship, Spain is experiencing a dramatic revival of interest in its recent past: witness the slew of books and movies documenting the crimes of the Franco regime, or the teams of volunteers who spend their weekends unearthing mass graves from the Civil War. It was only a matter of time before the Transition, the period of time when Spaniards implicitly agreed not to talk about the past in order to convert their government peacefully from dictatorship to democracy, came under scrutiny as well. And no figure played a greater role in the Transition than Juan Carlos himself.

More surprising than these eruptions of republican sentiment, however, has been the ferocity with which the Spanish government has sought to suppress them. Within hours after the Jueves cartoon was published, the national court had banned the edition, ordered every copy removed from newsstands, and shut down the magazine's website. The two cartoonists responsible for the drawing are currently standing trial, and will face fines of nearly $5,000 each if found guilty. Jaume Roura and Enric Stern, the two young Catalans suspected of leading the photo burnings in Girona, face worse punishment. Arrested and charged with "grave injuries to the monarchy," the two may receive 15-year prison sentences if found guilty.

For Javier Pérez Royo, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sevilla, the courts' response in both cases has been disproportionate. "All they're doing is saying, 'I'm a republican and I don't want a monarchy,'" he says of the arrested. "That's not a crime. That's an exercise in freedom of expression. If anything, what has damaged the monarchy is the government's response. They're not only making a juridical mistake, but a political one."