Juan Carlos I in Mallorca in 2011. Photo: Getty
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Can Spain's monarchy survive the abdication of Juan Carlos I?

The smooth succession from father to son was put in doubt after thousands of people took to the streets to call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

The Spanish monarchy has been thrown into crisis after the king, Juan Carlos I, announced his attention to abdicate the throne after 39 years in favour of his son Felipe. The news was conveyed via the royal household’s Twitter account and confirmed by a letter signed by Juan Carlos and posted shortly afterwards. He then made a televised address to the nation thanking the Spanish people for their support.

But the smooth succession from father to son was put in doubt after thousands of people took to the streets to call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy and more than 70,000 people signed an online petition urging Spain’s politicians to use this “historical opportunity to promote a public debate that will help regenerate democracy and determine the future of the monarchy”.

Whatever else may be written about Juan Carlos, his four-decade rule has enabled Spain to transition from the right-wing dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco to a modern pluralistic social democracy. In the course of his reign the king has been one of Europe’s most popular monarchs, although scandals in recent years have tarnished his record somewhat and are probably partly behind the popular demand for a constitutional debate.

Born in Rome on 5 January, 1938, Juan Carlos moved to Spain aged ten where he was groomed by Franco as a successor. In 1969 Franco named him as his heir, giving him the title of Prince of Spain. At this stage Juan Carlos publicly supported Franco, even acting as proxy head of state for Franco during the dictator’s final days – but all the while he was holding secret meeetings with reformist politicians.

He became king on November 22, 1975, two days after Franco’s death. It was a time of uncertainty and flux in Spanish politics. Many questioned the role Juan Carlos would play in Spain’s fledgling democracy and he immediately found himself at odds with right-wing politicians for not continuing Franco’s authoritarian policies, instead looking to left-wing, republican parties for support.

An early defining moment came during the abortive military coup of February 1981 when, as captain-general of the armed forces, in full uniform, he addressed the nation in a television broadcast to support the democratically-elected government during a TV broadcast. He used this to contradict claims by the coup leaders that he supported their actions. The coup failed and his popularity soared – even Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the just-legalised Communist Party who had dubbed the king “Juan Carlos the brief” in reference to what he presumed would be a short reign – expressed his admiration for the king’s decisive action.

Despite some remaining republicanism and independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque region, public support for Juan Carlos remained strong for the next three decades. Juan Carlos travelled the world as an effective ambassador for Spain and Spanish interests and the weddings of his three children were celebrated as major international events. In 2007 he became a YouTube sensation in the Spanish-Speaking world when, at an Ibero-American Summit in Chile, he interrupted the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez by asking him “why don’t you shut up?” (¿Por qué no te callas?). This phrase was picked up by the Spanish public and soon featured in the press, in jokes, on t-shirts and on social media.

 

Scandal and crisis

But the economic crisis in 2008 brought a change in public perception of the monarchy, particularly their use of public money to fund an extravagant lifestyle. A biography of Queen Sofía reported her views against gay marriage, and the king’s eldest daughter, Infanta Elena, divorced in 2009 – the first child of Spanish royalty to do so.

Meanwhile Juan Carlos' personal popularity took a dive in April 2012 when a photograph was published showing him posing with a dead elephant during a hunting trip to Botswana. The expensive trip was perceived as a slap in the face of crisis-hit Spaniards, even though the royal household insisted it had not been paid for with taxpayers' money. In addition, as honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the king’s behaviour was criticised as irresponsible. The WWF responded by removing him from his post as honorary president and the king issued a rare apology. What made it worse was that it emerged that he had not been travelling with Queen Sofía, but with German aristocrat Princess Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. It later transpired that she had accompanied him on several trips. The press, who had always respected the privacy of the royal family, began to print stories about alleged infidelities.

The royal family was further rocked by the revelation that Infanta Cristina’s husband, Iñaki Urdangarín, was under investigation for an alleged embezzlement of millions of euro of public money. He was later charged. Cristina was formally named as a suspect in 2013 and charged early in January this year.

The growing sense of scandal and waste has taken its toll on his popularity – his approval rating fell to 41% and there were further calls for his abdication, even from people who had previously supported him. His health has also been poor: he has undergone a series of hip operations after several falls. In January this year Juan Carlos made his first public appearance in two months for the “Pascua Militar”, the opening of the military year. Looking frail, his speech was hesitant and he stumbled over his words, which prompted renewed talk of abdication.

Can the monarchy survive?

In his abdication statement, Juan Carlos referred to Prince Felipe, 46, as “the incarnation of stability” – and he is well prepared for the job, having studied in Canada and the US as well as completing his military training in Spain. He has stood in for his father on several occasions and his personal popularity has remained strong with an approval rating of about 66%.

Felipe VI will bring a new style to the Spanish monarchy, with his wife, former news anchor Letizia Ortiz, styled as “the first middle-class queen”. The couple is generally well-liked, but the institution of monarchy has suffered in the last few years – and Felipe won’t have the opportunity, like his father did, to appear as the saviour of democracy.

The revisionists are already at work. Despite all the recent criticism, the Spanish media are falling over themselves to praise Juan Carlos and his many achievements. And when the dust settles, Felipe will have to face some difficult challenges: Spain is still deeply in economic crisis with high unemployment and a political class dogged by accusations of corruption. As for Felipe, all eyes will be on his investment ceremony (there will be no coronation as the king of Spain doesn’t wear a crown) and how much public money is spent on it.

Meanwhile he will have to weather the storm of his own sister’s trial. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, if she is cleared, the public will assume preferential treatment. If Cristina is found guilty and sentenced, all eyes will be on how she is punished. The outcome of the trial, and Felipe’s reaction to it, will be a key point of reference for how he is perceived by Spaniards and perhaps the future of the Spanish monarchy.

The ConversationFernando Rosell-Aguilar does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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