The Spanish king who set, then saved, democracy

Juan Carlos I, the former Franco protégé who retired from public life this week, had his controversies. But he should be remembered for anchoring democracy in a key corner of 20th-century Europe.

Spain's former King Juan Carlos, waves as he and his daughter Princess Elena watch a bullfight in Aranjuez, Spain, June 2.

With little fanfare and a short farewell letter, Spain’s king emeritus, Juan Carlos I, officially retired from public life June 2. The former monarch, who reigned for 38 years, should not be fading away so quietly.

Despite past controversies, Juan Carlos must be remembered for his role in ushering in democracy for Spain in the 1970s, a crucial step toward European stability. He then oversaw that democracy and even, at one point, rescued it.

When he first took the throne in 1975, politicians expected him to be little more than a historical footnote. He was called “Juan Carlos, el Breve” (Juan Carlos, the Brief). That he would rule so long was a surprise. Spain’s longest and most successful experiment in democracy would have been unthinkable without him.

He started on the path toward kingship as a young pawn in a Spanish game of thrones. A decade after the fascist Generalissimo Francisco Franco seized power in the civil war of the 1930s, Juan Carlos’ father – trying to ingratiate himself with the country’s dictator while the royal family lived in exile – sent the 10-year-old prince back to Spain to complete his education. For almost 20 years, Franco personally supervised the prince’s life. In 1969, he named the prince his successor – immediately ordering a public pledge of loyalty.

Juan Carlos was supposed to be Franco after Franco. But when the dictator died in 1975, Juan Carlos shocked the world by fast-tracking Spain toward democracy – revealing reformist tendencies kept secret during the final years of Franco’s life.

Within five years, the country had a new constitution, judiciary, and democratic legislature, in large part due to the king’s efforts. When a rogue general stormed the parliament in 1981, ostensibly in the name of the king, Juan Carlos ended the attempted coup with definitive support for democracy. He is widely credited with preventing a return to authoritarian rule. A headline in a story by The Christian Science Monitor said it all: “A king who really earns his keep.”

The king’s motto was “The crown must be earned every day.” He lost the crown by that same measure when, after embarrassing political gaffes, he was forced to abdicate in 2014. Despite his fall, he will long be seen as the father of Spain’s third republic. He helped create it, came to represent it, and eventually gave it back to the people. Now, unlike the early, fragile years of Spain’s democracy, the country no longer needs its “people’s king.”

Juan Carlos ended his retirement letter sent last week to his son, King Felipe, with the words “A huge hug from your father.” Many Spaniards, jaded with the monarchy’s recent failures, may question whether he deserves a hug in return. Embraced or not, he at least has earned a place in Spanish history.

In today’s troubled democracies, when rhetoric seems to be more important than results, the former king’s desire to “earn his crown” – to be evaluated on his merit – is a refreshing approach to power. He was judged by his actions; he accepted judgment based on his actions. How different the world would be if more leaders took the same approach.

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