The announcement of the abdication of King Juan Carlos immediately sparked a heated debate in Spain about the advantages of the monarchy and the need to change the political system. Tens of thousands of young people for the most part took to the streets with the red, yellow and purple flags of “La Republica”, demanding a referendum on the state system: republic or monarchy.
As a young Dutch journalist in Spain covering “La Transicion” – the transition from Franco’s fascist dictatorship to an emerging European-style democracy – I remember similar discussions in the mid-1970s. Juan Carlos was proclaimed king on the 22nd. November 1975, two days after Franco’s death. He was supposed to guarantee Franco’s legacy and continue the dictatorship with a young and monarchical face. The democratic opposition of the time called for free elections. The opposition forces were initially not convinced that a true democracy would be possible with Juan Carlos on the throne. Pro-democracy protesters in the 1970s often carried Republican flags because a democratic, monarchist Spain was unimaginable to them.
I remember writing a column about the futility of the monarchy-republic discussion in establishing a true democratic system. What does it matter if the colors of the flag are red-yellow-red or red-yellow-purple? Theoretically, it may be more democratic to elect your head of state every five or six years and not have a king or queen. But the crucial question regarding the political system is whether it is truly democratic, whether the voice of the people is heard and whether popular aspirations are met.
I received scathing reactions to my column on the Spanish flag and some readers doubted my democratic credentials. The question of the Spanish state system still arouses strong emotions. Spain has already had a republican system twice: in 1873-1874 and from 1931 to 1939. In fact, Juan Carlos’ grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, went into exile in 1931 during the establishment of the Second Republic.
The Second Republic was a progressive if not revolutionary state. It suppressed the privileges of the nobility and the powerful Catholic clergy and defended freedom of expression and association, women’s rights and better conditions for workers and farmers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco defeated the Republic after a bloody civil war in 1936-1939, which claimed the lives of half a million people.
Franco’s heir-designate Juan Carlos did not turn out to be exactly what friends and foes expected. In fact, he understood Spain’s need for change and modernization and, once king, he played an extremely important role in the difficult transition from an authoritarian and backward system, a holdover from the past, to a parliamentary democracy. future and European.
Franco’s heir-designate Juan Carlos did not turn out to be exactly what friends and foes expected. In fact, he understood Spain’s need for change and modernization and, once king, he played an extremely important role in the difficult transition from an authoritarian and backward system, a holdover from the past, to a parliamentary democracy. future and European. Spain was no longer different, as it had been under Franco, but became a “normal” European democratic country.
During these years of transition, it was not at all clear that democracy would prevail. Part of the army, military intelligence and diehard nostalgic for the Franco era conspired to thwart the democracy project. After having published a detailed article on certain military intelligence operations and the extreme right which undermined the nascent democracy, I was expelled from Spain in May 1979. My crime: “Offense of the Spanish armed forces”. I had the dubious honor of being the last foreign journalist to be expelled from Spain by the military, in one of the convulsions of the old regime.
In February 1981, one of the soldiers whom I mentioned in my article almost two years earlier, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, attempted to take control of Spain by force and block the road to democracy. The image of the Guardia Civil or the Civil Guard. wielding a pistol in the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, became world famous. The coup failed, mainly because the king refused to cooperate with the putchists and stood firmly in defense of democracy. This event became a turning point in Juan Carlos’ career. If anyone still doubted the importance of the king in the establishment of democracy, he would now be convinced. With rare exceptions, the king has definitely conquered the Transicion generation.
However, 33 years after the failed coup, it is the turn of another generation to take the lead. And there is a deep sense of unease, political mistrust and a sincere desire to make a fresh start among young people. It is no coincidence that the new Spanish political party, which was very successful in the European elections, is called “Podemos: We can! Many activists say Spain needs a new political system after 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship and 39 years of King Juan Carlos. A king who has recently lost much of his former popularity and credibility due to several scandals within the royal family.
A third republic?
So why not have a Third Republic as a new start?
Traditional politicians and political parties are discredited in the eyes of many Spaniards. In the recent European elections, Spain’s two main parties, the ruling right-wing Partido Popular and the center-left opposition party PSOE, failed to even collect half the votes. This blow to the traditional bipartisanship, existing since the Transicion, is explained by allegations of corruption and incompetence of traditional politicians. The social-democratic PSOE has more or less imploded (it has gone from 39% to 23% in five years) and the leader of the PSOE Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba had to resign last week due to poor results in the European elections.
Juan Carlos’ successor, Felipe, will not only have to deal with the change of generation, the call of many Spaniards for political renewal and the loss of political credibility of the old guard, but also two other burning issues: aspirations separatists from the Basques and Catalans. November 9 is the proposed date for a referendum on the independence of Catalonia. The monarch as a symbol of the unity of Spain will have a crucial but difficult role in facilitating a reasonable compromise and, ultimately, in keeping the country together.
The call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy cannot be easily dismissed, even if such a plebiscite is not permitted by the current Spanish constitution. One could argue that the question of the colors of the flag or the architecture of the state, monarchy or republic, is a dilemma of form, not of democratic content. In the final analysis, most Democrats would rather live in monarchical Sweden than in Republican Syria.
But with the abdication of Juan Carlos, fundamental questions arise: how to improve democratic practice and restore confidence, how to respond to the aspirations of Catalans, Basques and other groups, how to create a common discourse on the future of Spain and create a political system that the majority of people can believe in.
Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen and was Managing Director of the Doha Center for Media Freedom.