Does Spain Really Need a King?

Juan Carlos helped vanquish fascism. But that's a distant memory for Spanish youth.

On Monday, Juan Carlos, Spain's king for the past four decades, abdicated his throne and ceded power to his son, Prince Felipe. Making the moment all the more poignant, the 76-year-old monarch did so by addressing Spaniards from behind his desk, just as he had 33 years earlier, during the most famous minute-and-a-half of his reign.

In 1981, Juan Carlos spoke to a nation in crisis. The king, then 43 and six years into his rule, appeared in uniform and denounced an attempted military coup, declaring that "the Crown, the symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes of people attempting by force to interrupt the democratic process." Francisco Franco, Spain's right-wing dictator, had tapped Juan Carlos as his successor before Franco's death in 1975, but the king took Spain in a different direction, establishing a constitutional monarchy. His speech in 1981 helped secure the country's transition to a parliamentary democracy:

In 2014, Juan Carlos once again spoke to a nation in crisis—this time one in the throes of a hellish economic malaise. "The long and deep economic crisis we are suffering from has left serious scars in the social fabric," the king observed, but "these difficult years have allowed us to take self-critical stock of our errors and our limitations as a society."

The national addresses serve as bookends to Juan Carlos's reign, but they also highlight a paradox of the Spanish monarchy: It is an anti-democratic institution that, at least historically, has served as a guarantor of democracy.

"In our recent collective memories we still have the role of the king in bringing about reconciliation, in helping the Transition, in the writing and approval of a Constitution that guarantees the principles of democracy, in helping to save that democracy from a military coup," former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told Spain's El País last year. "For that reason, I believe that Spanish parliamentary democracy is tied to the monarchy, and specifically with the career of Juan Carlos I."

Keep in mind, however, that Zapatero is 53. His memories are not the same as those of a 30-year-old Spaniard, who's grown up in a democratic Spain with no memory of the king's 1981 speech, or the role it played in vanquishing Franco's fascism. More than half of Spain's younger generation is unemployed, and many see the monarchy as a pointless extravagance if not a blight on the country, especially when the king goes elephant-hunting in Botswana or his daughter and son-in-law are accused of corruption.

In announcing his plans to bequeath the throne to his son, Juan Carlos repeatedly referenced the need to empower Spain's youth. A "new generation is rightly claiming its role as protagonist, just as happened in a crucial moment of the history of the generation to which I belong," he explained.

But what direction will this new generation take the monarchy in? In the Financial Times on Monday, David Gardner argued that Juan Carlos's abdication signals "the end of Spain's transition to democracy," and the start of a new existential crisis for the country that will necessitate political reforms:

Spain is in deep institutional crisis and facing a constitutional train crash over Catalonia’s threat to secede. Unemployment has blighted more than half of its young, a generation facing ruin. As the recent European elections showed, mainstream parties are discredited, with the combined tally of the ruling right-wing Partido Popular and the Socialists falling below 50 per cent, and insurgent groups like the left-wing Podemos (We Can) striking a popular and populist chord. The Socialist leader has resigned and already the party is talking about “one member, one vote” to elect his successor, in at least formal emulation of Podemos.

Changing the royal guard may change the conversation for a while. But the Bourbons are bowing to reality rather than changing it.

The popularity of the Spanish monarchy and king has undoubtedly suffered in recent years; an El Mundo poll in January found that only 50 percent of respondents supported the monarchy as a system of government for Spain. But the trend is most pronounced among young people. The same poll revealed that 79 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds wanted Juan Carlos to abdicate in favor of Felipe, compared with 65 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds, 59 percent of 45- to 64-year-olds, and 47 percent of those older than 65.

The question is whether Spanish youth will be content with a younger, more popular, less scandal-tainted king, or whether they will demand significant changes to the monarchy or even its outright abolition. An El País survey in May indicated that 64 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds agreed that Spain's transition to democracy wouldn't have been possible without Juan Carlos, and that the crown is firmly established in the country.

Spanish democracy may yet have room to accommodate the House of Bourbon.