Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Spain: A Right Royal Mess

The elderly man who sold me my apartment was clear about Spain's King Juan Carlos. "He is a traitor," he said.
That was more than a decade ago, and it was a shocking – almost blasphemous – thing to say. Only diehard republicans and even harder-headed former Francoists criticised the monarch. Heliodoro was one of the latter, an unreconstructed extremist who never forgave Juan Carlos for using the powers he received from General Francisco Franco in 1975 to usher in democracy. Few would have agreed.
These days, however, Madrid seethes with discontented talk about the monarchy. The upset is proportional to the awed respect once accorded by almost everyone, including journalists who decided Juan Carlos was untouchable after he stopped a coup when civil guardsmen stormed the parliament in 1981.
As the 75-year-old monarch lies in a hospital bed this week, recovering from his fourth operation in 10 months, there is talk of both abdication and of controlling his use of taxpayers' money. The king is not as weak in mind or body as Pope Benedict, but in Madrid there is also a feeling that an old institution needs shaking up – possibly with a new face.
How did it get to this? The hard-working king with the common touch was onceEurope's most popular monarch – a virtuous contrast to Britain's distant and dysfunctional royals. I recall once getting lost and driving freely through the deer park surrounding his modest Madrid palace. The royal guards were completely unconcerned when I eventually reappeared in the wrong place.
Yet, as Spaniards endure double-dip recession, government austerity and 26% unemployment, royal privileges suddenly seem less understated. The king's luxuriesare beginning to grate.
Reminders of the royal lifestyle were plastered all over newspapers again this week. Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a stylish 48-year-old who uses a German ex-husband's title to call herself "princess", gave several interviews about her relationship with the monarch. This, she assured doubting Spaniards, was purely professional. She complained, indeed, that his family scandals were now damaging her business as a go-between in deals involving companies and governments – including in the oil-rich Middle East. "This is doing a lot of damage to my professional reputation," she said.
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