Friday, May 21, 2004

A Royal Tale

Tomorrow morning the wedding will take place of the heir to the Spanish Throne, Prince Filipe de Asturias, thus marking the beginning of a brand new chapter in the three hundred year Borbon family dynasty.

To my surprise, unlike their British counterparts, the Monarchs here continue to enjoy great popularity and respect among the general public. Their reputation is protected at all costs and it is unheard of for the tabloid press to spread scandal and rumour concerning the Royal Household. The main reason for such a priviledge stems from the individual popularity of King Juan Carlos I. But who is this man and why is he King ?

The present Borbon family came to the Spanish throne in 1701. Up until that point the seat of power was held by the Hapsburg Dynasty. However, the change of blood line was not due to war but rather as a result of the curious Carlos II, the last of the Hapsburgs. This unfortunate King was the end result of four generations of royal interbreeding. His huge Hapsburg jaw stuck out so far that his teeth couldn t meet, thereby preventing him from chewing. Furthermore his pathetic blood line was the cause of him being so weak that he was wheeled in front of visiting nobles and held upright by puppet strings. Carlos spent most of his time picking strawberries, only attending to national affairs for a few minutes each day. In the end, due to a complete ignorance on sexual matters, on the part of both he and his equally dotty wife, Carlos died without having produced an heir. It was therefore on his death bed that he named without logical reason his successor as the French Borbon, Filipe V, grandson of the then French King.

The Borbon Dynasty have remained on the Spanish throne for most of the three hundred years since, only being interrupted briefly at various stages by two attempted Republics, Napoleon and lastly Franco. The grandfather of the present king, much through his own doing, was kicked off his throne and sent into exile by Republicans not long before the Spanish Civil war. However years later, in an effort by the ageing Franco to secure the loyalty of conservative Spain, including the Army, the monarchy was restored. It was therefore in 1975, on the death of Franco, that Juan Carlos I was crowned king after a 44 year family absence. In doing so he jumped the royal queue after Franco pressurised his father, the legitimate heir, to renounce his claim in favour of his son.

Juan Carlos , who was born in Rome and baptised by the Pope, was brought to Spain by Franco at the age of ten in order to carefully oversee his upbringing. At his investiture, Juan Carlos knelt before Franco and swore allegiance. From that day forth he was always seen flanking Franco on all official state business. As a result, when he finally became King he was seen as nothing more than a poodle of the old regime.

With the death of Franco, and in his new role as King, Juan Carlos possessed immense powers of Government. However the public who had little trust in him, had given up any hope for change. Juan Carlos who maintained especially close links to the military was a complete political enigma. It was therefore with great surprise that the King used his position, at great risk, to bring about massive political reform and divest himself of power. It all started when he persuaded the then hardline Prime Minister to resign and replaced him with a high ranking Franco bureaucrat. With this appointment, the hearts of the nation sank further. But little did they know that this was the most decisive step to be taken in the Transicion Democratica. It was together that the King and his new Prime Minister through the manipulation of individuals and with great political cunning built a fragile democracy. Juan Carlos I was now a National Hero.

Miraculously, the ultimate goal of political freedom had been achieved. However stability was far from certain with the ever present threat of a revolt by conservative factions of the military. It was also not long before public disillusionment grew as the material benefits of democracy failed to appear. With the continuing economic crisis, old faces still in power, an increase in ETA attacks and the ever increasing calls for regional autonomy the enthusiasm for the new found democracy were at an absolute low. As a result in February 1981 the publics fears were realised when members of the military stormed parliament. For 36 hours the nation believed that they were witnessing a return to the past.

However the King who continued to hold the unswerving loyalty of most military generals, rallied the nation on television and informed the rebels that they would only succeed over "his dead body". Not long after, the revolt was brought under control by forces loyal to the King. The public may have been disillusioned by democracy but they still preferred it to the alternative provided by a mutinous military.

The role played by Juan Carlos in the defeat of the military coup has now become his defining moment of Glory. The reasonable popularity for the Royal Family therefore derives not from the provisions of the constitution nor from their Blue blood but rather through the personal exercise by Juan Carlos of his role as King aswell as his likeable personality. The question therefore is whether this respect and acceptance of the Monarchy is exclusive to Juan Carlos I or will it continue beyond his reign ?

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