When I walked into the kitchen on Tuesday morning and congratulated Angeles, her answer says it all. A new Spanish king is not something that the average Andalucian gets excited about. Royalty is far away, both geographically as well as mentally, there is hardly any respect for the royal family and what’s going to change anyhow?
Nothing has been the same in Spain since the day, two years ago, when King Juan Carlos was revealed to have broken his hip on an elephant-hunting trip to Botswana, and was flown home to be treated at an exclusive clinic. Juan Carlos, who announced on Monday that he is abdicating the throne, was long revered for his role in vouchsafing Spain’s transition to democracy following the death, in 1975, of the country’s geriatric Fascist leader, Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In what was perhaps Carlos’s finest moment, he went on television, on February 23rd, 1982, to face down a right-wing military coup that was already under way; his address was seen as having saved Spain’s nascent democracy, earning him the gratitude and the affection of two generations of Spaniards.
But all that was in the past, and the news about the elephant posed a number of problems for Juan Carlos, now in his seventies. That the King was clueless enough to kill elephants for sport is embarrassing. The news that the junket, complete with private jet, had been subsidized by a Syrian-born Saudi businessman was also unpleasant. Then it emerged that the King had been on the trip with a woman who was not Queen Sofia, and the Spanish press reported that the woman, a German aristocrat, was his mistress. There were also reports that Sofia and Carlos’s marriage existed principally for public consumption and that she spent as little time as possible in his company.
All this, and more, had long been talked about among royal courtiers and grandees and politicians, but not among the Spanish public at large, which had long held Juan Carlos in high regard. The consequence of these reports—in the midst of a grinding national recession and widespread unemployment—was devastating.
After the elephant hunt, Juan Carlos was obliged to apologize to his countrymen, and he did so, on television, looking humble and contrite. At the time, the King’s apology seemed just enough to allow him to survive the scandal—but talk of abdication soon began. Spain’s media had been generally obsequious toward the royal family. Now the media began a kind of inquisition, investigating hitherto untouchable matters with relish. In addition to Elephantgate, there was a scandal involving Juan Carlos’s daughter Princess Cristina and her husband, Inaki Urdangari, a former sports hero accused of using a charitable foundation as a personal slush fund. (They have denied the charges.) In the past couple of years, hardly a week goes by without some new suggestion of royal nefariousness from the ensuing court case.
Just as Pope Francisco’s populist measures may well save the Catholic Church, replacing Juan Carlos may save the Spanish monarchy. Traditionally, Spain’s royals are either loved or hated. Juan Carlos’s grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, was chased from the throne amid popular ire, in 1931, and the monarchy was restored only thanks to Franco. These days, political cynicism and apathy are widespread in Spain. But Juan Carlos’s successor—his forty-six-year-old son—is generally tolerated, if unexciting and his wife, Letizia, is wildly popular. If their arrival on the throne coincides with an uptick in Spain’s economic fortunes, marking an end to their seven-year-long national malaise, then the monarchy in Spain may still have a future, but here in Alcala people won’t care anyway.