King Juan Carlos: unprecedented apology speaks to royals' changed image

King Juan Carlos apologized for taking a lavish hunting vacation amid sharp austerity cuts. Recent scandals have tested popular faith in the monarchy, seen as a unifier in post-Franco Spain.

Paco Campos/AP
Spain's King Juan Carlos prepares to leave a hospital in Madrid on Wednesday, April 18. King Juan Carlos says he is sorry for having gone on lavish hunting vacation.

“I’m sorry. I was wrong and it won’t happen again,” Spain's King Juan Carlos said today on camera.

It is the first public apology by a Spanish monarch in history, coming in response to an equally unprecedented public clamor for humility from the crown.

The royal apology followed several days of intense public pressure after King Juan Carlos – beloved and respected by the majority in Spain – went elephant hunting in Botswana, reportedly on the dime of a Saudi Arabian businessman, and accidentally broke his hip. The trip became public when he had to be rushed to a Madrid hospital and pictures of him posing with a dead elephant went viral.

The uproar triggered extremely rare criticism that mushroomed quickly, from discreet comments by political leaders to popular chatter on Twitter and condemnation on talk shows. Several politicians openly called for his the king's abdication – a demand not made in nearly a century, and one that is rocking the pillars of an already shaky establishment. 

King Juan Carlos is much more than a figurehead monarch. He is credited with being a unifying presence in Spain and is, to most, a guarantor of Spanish national identity.

“This has been a big blow,” says Carmen Enríquez, a journalist who has written about the royal family for more than 15 years, publishing several books along the way. “Many people are upset, including myself, and I’m a big supporter of the crown. But others are also taking advantage of this to attack the royal family, and they forget all they have done for us.”

“This is the first time a king apologizes. And it means that, faced with public uproar, in the media, on the street, everywhere, he has understood he made a big mistake. And the best thing to do was to own up to it.”

More than a king

King Juan Carlos is Spain's first royal leader since the monarchy was restored in 1978. It was abolished in 1931, after Spaniards voted in a republican government. Dictator General Francisco Franco, who rose to power in after defeating the government in the Spanish Civil War, named Juan Carlos prince in 1969, and Franco’s hand-picked heir. He became head of state in 1975 after Franco’s death.

But he quickly disappointed Franco’s followers by restoring Spain’s democracy, naming a civilian government, and legalizing political forces that were outlawed under Franco. He is credited with saving the country's fledgling democracy in 1981, when he went on television and condemned an attempted military coup and privately demanded that those involved give up.

King Juan Carlos doesn’t intervene publicly in politics, nor is he subject to the scrutiny the British monarchy receives. In fact, there are still gagging laws in Spain in regards to the monarchy and the royal family rarely comments on any national issues – not even soccer. The Spanish press rarely goes after members of the royal family, and Spaniards do not often accept criticism of them.

But lately, Spain’s royal family has had a bad streak of publicity. The king’s grandson was injured lightly in his foot in a shooting accident, and his parents could be legally liable for allowing a child to use a firearm. There is also an ongoing trial against the king’s son-in-law, who is accused of embezzling millions of euros in public funds, a particularly egregious thing amid the country's extreme economic hardship.

There was nothing illegal about King Juan Carlos's trip to Botswana, but Spaniards were appalled that he was off on a safari while the majority of people struggle to survive the worst economic crisis in their history. His apology is, in effect, an attempt to put to rest the most serious challenge to the monarchy in years.

Apology accepted

The government has tried to remain on the sidelines of the uproar, refraining from making any comments, but the main political parties, including the governing Popular Party, have acknowledged that they are concerned about the consequences for society if the monarchy's credibility is severely damaged.

Indeed, the image of the monarchy has been consistently diminished for years. Spaniards gave the monarchy an unsatisfactory grade in the most recent poll, taken in October 2011. That was before these recent scandals – although the king still has a largely positive image. 

“The apology will be effective. He has rectified,” Mrs. Enríquez said.

Indeed, political leaders, commentators, columnists, and others were soon applauding the king's 11-word apology – which was, after all an unprecedented concession.

It’s unlikely the monarch will have to pass down the crown to his son Prince Felipe, at least not because of recent scandals. But at minimum, calls for an orderly abdication and coronation are sure to intensify. To supporters, the public acceptance of his apology is a well-deserved break that King Juan Carlos has earned. To critics, it’s a political prod to protect the institutional role of the crown.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Mrs. Enríquez said, “but monarchs traditionally don’t abdicate. Then again, people died younger before. It wouldn’t be so strange that someone who has served Spain for so long decided to step aside. The prince is ready and that could be the answer.”

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