How a top yachtsman donned crown, won Spain's affections

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

JUAN Carlos I is no ordinary king. Of all the reigning monarchs in Europe, the King of Spain has had to work the hardest to earn his crown. Today, 10 years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the tall, relaxed monarch is revered by political parties and the public as the leader who single-mindedly upheld democratic principles through the delicate moments of transition from a 40-year dictatorship to democracy.

He can also be more concerned about people than protocol. In March 1979, for instance, then-Prime Minister Adolfo Su'arez had just returned, ill and weary, from a grueling trip. Rather than asking Mr. Su'arez to come to him for a briefing on the trip, King Juan Carlos donned his helmet and rode off into the night on his motorcycle to the prime minister's residence on the outskirts of Madrid.

The King has built his present popularity from a past darkened by mistrust, humiliation, and political uncertainty.

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When General Franco died on Nov. 20, 1975, the newly proclaimed King was up against all odds. Hardly anybody wanted Franco's hand-picked heir, who was mocked for his wooden speeches and blank gaze.

And, in the latter half of the 20th century, who wanted a monarchy? Certainly not the left-wing opposition and not even the right-wing extremists. Exiled Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo dubbed the future king ``Juan Carlos the Short-Lived.'' The public hardly knew Juan Carlos to be anything more than a champion yachtsman.

In short, King Juan Carlos sorely needed credibility and legitimacy. It was a strange destiny for this Bourbon prince, born in exile in Rome during the Spanish Civil War, to be named successor to a dictator.

Obsessed with providing continuity and respectability for his regime, Franco had curiously declared Spain a kingdom in 1947. Only in 1969 did Franco finally designate Juan Carlos to succeed him, saying that he was not restoring a monarchy but establishing anew one that would uphold the principles of his regime.

As late as 1974, during the Socialist Party congress held in exile, Spain's present premier, Felipe Gonz'alez, said, ``We cannot commit ourselves to a regime, such as a monarchy, born -- like it or not -- of Francoism.''

The greatest surprise in this transition to democracy is how the man who was generally seen to be the continuation of Francoism proved to be the very negation of that regime.

An old school friend of Juan Carlos says one reason for this is the liberal principles the King received in his education.

In later years, Juan Carlos's political awareness grew from contacts with visitors to his residence at the Zarzuela Palace. There are plenty of tales of clandestine meetings. Opposition figures like Javier Solana -- now spokesman for Prime Minister Gonz'alez, then an underground socialist militant -- were smuggled into the palace by trusted friends, faces well-hidden in motorcycle helmets.

Visits abroad also brought Juan Carlos into contact with political leaders such as President John F. Kennedy, who shared the King's hopes for Spain's future.

In those difficult years as a prince with no official status or purpose, Juan Carlos had to prove himself to Franco, to both the right and left, and to his father, with whom he long maintained a tense, painful relationship.

Previously, various stints in different military academies led Juan Carlos to establish a close, comrade-in-arms relationship with the military.

This was to be instrumental in keeping the Army in check during touchy moments of the transition to democracy, such as the legalization of the Communist Party in 1977.

Juan Carlos lacks ease when speaking in public. His simplicity and warmth, however, have won him the enthusiasm of crowds and the sympathy of traditional republican stalwarts.

``Juan Carlos has managed to discard the stigmas of the Bourbons,'' says Andreu Claret, spokesman for the Communist Party. Spaniards have long viewed the Bourbons as Frenchified, haughty kings removed from the people.

In dismantling the Franco regime with great tact, Juan Carlos succeeded where his grandfather, Alfonso XIII, the last king of Spain before the civil war, had failed. Alfonso XIII, who had upheld the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera from 1923 to 1930, proved ineffectual in trying to hand down liberties and went into exile on the coming of the Republic.

Along with an astounding memory for names and faces, Juan Carlos has shown good intuition. His naming Adolfo Su'arez as prime minister in 1976 to carry out reforms was greeted by everyone with dismay. Su'arez was a product of the ``movimiento'' -- the only political party authorized during the Franco era. But Su'arez proved to be the very man who knew all the legal intricacies of the old regime and could take it apart from within.

The king's simple life style has made some of Spain's elite feel let down by the return of the monarchy -- no sumptuous palace, no court, no sartorial splendor. Known as ``Juanito'' to his family, Juan Carlos prefers on occasion to be addressed as ``Seor'' rather than ``majestad.'' Juan Carlos heads the lowest-budget royal household after the Duchy of Luxembourg.

Yet, conscious of his role, he compels respect and maintains a certain distance even with his children. His family includes Queen Sofia, of Greek royal lineage, two daughters, and one son.

Juan Carlos shares with his friend, King Hussein of Jordan, a passion for piloting planes and sitting up at night to operate a radio set. Juan Carlos is also an active sportsman. At the end of a visit to the Mercedes Benz factory in West Germany, a bright-eyed King leapt into a model car and, to everyone's dismay, drove around the test track at 130 miles per hour.

Stories of the King picking up stranded motorists on his motorcycle rival those of huffed switchboard operators who have hung up more than once on ``some man pretending to be the King.''

Others joke that Juan Carlos owes his legitimacy to his popularity -- and his height. For Spaniards, the six-foot-four athletic frame of the King is no small part of his prestige. ``What would have happened in Spain had Juan Carlos been short, dark, roly-poly, and scruffy?'' asks a Western diplomat, tongue-in-cheek.

As moderator of Spain's political life, the King cannot step down into the political arena and take sides on issues. But he can influence policy and make statements on foreign relations.

If anything, Juan Carlos will be remembered for using his authority to send the Army back to its barracks on the night of Feb. 23, 1981, when Army generals attempted a coup. His credibility stems from that night in which Spain reaffirmed its democracy.

Ten years after taking the throne, analysts agree that the King heads a society free from the threat of military coups.

Today, past habits and old faces from the Franco era mix ambiguously with new mores and young, coming personalities. Moreover, the peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy did not do away with a centralized administration. Nor did it do away with the attitude that goes with such a system -- the bartering of influence, the ``state-must-take-care-of-me'' mentality. Political apathy that had taken root in the Franco years has not been entirely shaken off.

Yet Spain's unique experience has been of great value to other nations, especially in Latin America. Countries like Argentina and Uruguay have looked to the Spanish example to inspire their own transitions to democracy.

In 1978, King Juan Carlos, as chief ambassador of a democratic Spain, successfully carried off a controversial visit to the Argentina of the generals. A plain civilian suit and a curt handshake took the place of the customary embrace. Argentines remember Juan Carlos dearly.

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