The Elephant in the Throne Room: Spain's Royal Pains Grow Deeper

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Rann Safaris / Almagro / Abaca

King Juan Carlos of Spain poses in front of a dead elephant during a private hunting trip in Botswana in 2006

The Spanish Bourbon family is one of the oldest royal lines in Europe, having survived centuries of bloody wars and attempted coups, a Napoleonic invasion and more than one impotent heir. But if Spaniards have suddenly begun imagining themselves without a King, it isn't for any of those historically respectable reasons. It's because of elephants.

On April 14, Spain awoke to the news that King Juan Carlos had broken his hip while elephant hunting in Botswana. Rushed back from Africa on a private jet, the 74-year-old monarch underwent emergency hip replacement in Madrid, an often dangerous operation for the elderly. But if he emerged from surgery expecting sympathy, he was badly mistaken. For the first time in Spanish history, wide swaths of the public are openly criticizing the King, and in some cases going even further.

Some of the criticism was directed at the King's well-known passion for hunting. Although elephant hunting is legal and strictly regulated in Botswana, elephants in many parts of the world are endangered, and the image of their King taking one down for pleasure sat hard with many Spaniards. "Inappropriate," wrote Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí in his blog for the newspaper El País. "Because a monarch cannot nor should not ignore that hunting elephants for pleasure is obscene and injures the sensibilities of millions." By Monday, the website Actuable had collected 39,000 signatures calling for the King's resignation as honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund.

But that was hardly the only criticism. What really stuck in the craw of Spaniards — and what lit up Twitter with complaints — was the discrepancy between their own reduced circumstances in the middle of a severe economic collapse and those of a King who would sign on for a holiday that, according to the website of the company he traveled with, would cost $59,500 for 14 days. "The spectacle of the monarch hunting elephants in Africa sets a bad example when the economic crisis in our country is causing so many problems for Spaniards," wrote El Mundo, a conservative newspaper. "It transmits an image of indifference and frivolity that a head of state ought never to give."

The outrage is understandable. With public debt rising, the new government of Mariano Rajoy has recently announced a number of dramatic austerity measures that will cut benefits and freeze salaries in a country that already counts 23.9% of its population as unemployed. Just this week, as Spain's bond yields rose to 6%, raising fears that a bailout was imminent, the European Commission sent a team of inspectors to Madrid to monitor the state of reforms. In a show of solidarity, the King recently announced he would be cutting his own household budget by 2% (approximately $220,000). For him to turn around and take this holiday displays, if not an outright misuse of public funds (the palace says the trip, though not the security and medical detail that travels with the King, was privately funded), then at least a remarkable tone deafness. "I've never found anything to suggest that the King was ever anything less than deeply concerned with the image of Spain and of the monarchy," says London School of Economics historian Paul Preston, who has written an admiring biography of Juan Carlos. "So I was very surprised that he would take this trip. Given the intensity of the economic crisis, it was certainly ill advised."

The most remarkable thing about all this criticism is that it is happening at all. Juan Carlos was handpicked by the dictator Francisco Franco to succeed him, but the King moved quickly to encourage Spain's transition to democracy. He consolidated his reputation as a hero of democracy in 1981, when, after a disaffected military officer attempted a coup from the floor of Spain's parliament, Juan Carlos went on television to quell the attempted uprising. Ever since, the media has protected him from the kind of investigations and rumormongering with which the British press, for example, scrutinizes its royal family.

Admittedly, that has begun to change recently. Both the ongoing investigation of the King's son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, for fraud and corruption, and the accident in which the King's eldest grandson shot himself in the foot with a weapon that, at age 13, he is legally prohibited from operating, have chipped away at the royal family's reputation.

But those trickles of criticism are nothing compared with the floodgates released over the weekend. Because it considered the trip private, the palace did not reveal that the King was in Botswana. Since then, it has come out that at least one person who should have had the perspicacity to dissuade the King from indulging in an expensive holiday involving the killing of endangered animals knew about the trip: Rajoy, Spain's Prime Minister. Other more salacious rumors have surfaced on the Web. There was also this clear bit of news: upon hearing of her husband's accident, Queen Sofía, a noted animal lover and vegetarian, did not cancel a planned weekend trip to Greece, and thus was not scheduled to visit her husband in the hospital until her return to Spain on April 16.

All of these jabs — as well as an annotated illustration in Sunday's El País that, by detailing the parts of the King's body that have been injured on this and other occasions, made him look like a royal version of the board game Operation — are unprecedented in a country where the press has habitually subscribed to a code of omertà when it comes to the royal family. And it has lots of people wondering what the impact of such scrutiny will be.

"This isn't going to bring down the monarchy as a whole," says Fernando Vallespín, professor of political science at Madrid's Autonomous University. "But it is a moment of transformation. Up until now it's been taboo to demand transparency from the palace. But I think that's exactly what has to happen."

Some are going even further. On Sunday, Tomás Gómez, Socialist Party leader for the region of Madrid told the press on Sunday that "the moment has arrived for the head of state to decide between his obligations and public responsibilities and an abdication which would allow him to enjoy a different life." Abdication, a word never before used prescriptively in the Spanish media, also made its way into several newspaper columns, including that of Arsenio Escolar, editor of the newspaper 20 Minutes. "The final effect of the Botswana case could be that the King loses his crown," Escolar wrote. "That the King's absurd, insensitive, inappropriate, expensive, secretive and irresponsible trip will be the fat straw that breaks the camel's back, the final fuse that pushes him toward abdication."

Historians have long explained democratic Spain's peculiar dedication to its royals with the phrase "Spain is not monarchist; it's Juancarlist." Now, thanks to one expensive elephant hunt, it may not even be that.