King Juan Carlos of Spain should have no regrets as he steps down from the throne: His abdication reflects the same values that have made him a great monarch.
Like it or not, lifetime tenure is no longer standard practice, even for royalty. Juan Carlos, 76, is the third septuagenarian monarch in the last 18 months to abdicate, after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Albert II of Belgium. And that's not counting Pope Benedict XVI. With the media exposing their frailties and foibles, and with polls tracking their popularity, monarchs have become as accountable as any politician.
There is a certain symmetry to Juan Carlos's decision to step aside for his son, Crown Prince Felipe. His own father, Don Juan de Borbon y Borbon, had to give up his ambitions to let Juan Carlos ascend to the throne. Back then, in 1975, the royals were bowing to the will of Caudillo Francisco Franco, not the Spanish people. After playing an ambiguous role during World War II, Franco sought the legitimacy of a strong connection with Spain's ousted royal dynasty. In 1948, he agreed with Don Juan that Prince Juan Carlos would be educated in Spain and trained for leadership by Franco himself, who designed the study program, including training in the army, naval and air force academies. In 1969, he declared Juan Carlos his successor as head of state.
Juan Carlos worked for years to make his father understand that following Franco's wishes was necessary. The dictator wanted to die in office, and he needed to make sure his successor would be loyal. Juan Carlos waited and did his best to demonstrate loyalty. At the time of his ascension in 1975, he was probably Europe's most powerful monarch. He appointed and removed the prime minister and the parliament speaker, had veto power over laws and could issue legal decrees; he even had supreme command over all the branches of the military.
The new king's instincts, though, were much more democratic than Franco's. He began gradually, carefully dismantling the dictatorial order. His systematic, moderate approach paid off in 1981, when his popularity with the military helped him stifle a right-wing coup. Crown Prince Felipe, then only 13, was next to his father as he made calls to military commanders to ensure their support. The king's approval rating approached 90 percent after the coup was defeated. Ultimately, he handed over most of his powers, retaining a largely symbolic status as an arbitrator and mediator between the branches of power.
"It was the monarchy which offered a decisive contribution in establishing and consolidating democracy," German historian Walther Bernecker wrote of Juan Carlos's legacy.
Having played that role, King Juan Carlos could, and did, enjoy the royal life. A pilot, motorcyclist and avid hunter, he exemplified the male ideal of his generation. The king's unfortunate elephant hunt in 2012, which cost double the annual salary of the average Spaniard and revealed his close friendship with a German woman 28 years his junior, couldn't but grate on Spaniards' nerves after the financial crisis plunged the country into one of its worst depressions in history. The scandal involving Princess Cristina and her husband, the handball player turned influence peddler Inaki Urdangarin, also reflected unfavorably on the royal family. Cristina was actually named as a suspect in a criminal case involving tax fraud, a disgrace to the king. As of January, 62 percent of Spaniards wanted the king to abdicate.
Juan Carlos was lucky compared to Albert of Belgium. That monarch abdicated in the midst of a paternity scandal involving the artist Delphine Boel, who tried to get a court order forcing him to undergo genetic testing.
The realities of modern monarchies are nothing like "A Game of Thrones": There's no point for kings and queens to hang on to power when people are tired of them. King Juan Carlos may have gotten attached to his title in his 39 years on the throne, but he is nothing if not a responsible statesman in a country he helped turn into a democracy. Unlike Franco, he can admit he is now frail, tired and no longer able to work his old magic. He doesn't have to die on the job like the dictator he succeeded.
There are plenty of dictators still left in the world whose countries would benefit if they followed Juan Carlos's example.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at email@example.com