As King Juan Carlos I Abdicates, A History Lesson from SU Madrid

Amalia Yrizar, a history professor at SU Madrid, has written an engaging background read on the historic abdication of Spain’s king, Juan Carlos I. Tomorrow, his son Felipe will be crowned King Philip VI of Spain. Here’s Amalia’s summary of the importance of the event:

Royal Palace_Madrid.credit_PromoMadrid.flickrccThis is the first Spanish king who voluntarily decided to abdicate the throne in hundreds of years. There have been other abdications in history but all of them were forced by different reasons. In 1724 King Philip V abdicated the crown and passed it on to his son Louis I who died eight months later giving it back to his father who reigned until he died. In 1808, King Charles IV ceded the crown to Napoleon but it was not a voluntary abdication, since he was forced to resign his rights to the throne. The same thing happened to Isabella II who was forced into exile by a Coup d’Etat; or to King Alfonso XIII, the current King’s grandfather, who left Spain but never gave up the crown. To find a real abdication we need to go back to 1556 when Charles I, due to medical reasons, decided to renounce the crown.

The second reason, perhaps the most important one, is that King Juan Carlos I basically achieved the democratization of this country. He began his reign in 1975, when Francisco Franco died after thirty six years of military dictatorship. Instead of holding on to a more traditional role as monarch, King Juan Carlos I played a decisive role in the Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy. He appointed the most relevant protagonists (Prime Minister, counselors, military leaders, etc.) to lead this transition, and he worked hand in hand with them to achieve it. At the beginning of his kingship the government produced a democratic constitution (1978), which guarantees fundamental rights such as the right of free expression of ideas, the right of association, the right to life, freedom of worship, freedom of teaching, freedom of thought, etc. The constitution also established a democratic system in which the particular feelings of some regions are acknowledged and respected. Consequently, during these past thirty nine years, Spain has had six democratically elected “Presidents of Government” (Prime Ministers), who have made the Spanish democracy work as a mature system that nobody can question. King Juan Carlos I has also played an important role as the highest ambassador of Spain, visiting multiple countries in Europe and the Middle East, Africa, the Far East, Latin and North America, of course including the United States, always representing all the people of Spain and never any particular political party.

Thirdly, this is a significant event because it has brought to the foreground some issues that were not planned or included in the 1978 Constitution, such as the status that the abdicated king will have within the Spanish political system, the redefinition of the Spanish Royal family, etc. These issues now have to be solved as quickly as possible to avoid any political problems.

Last but not least, this generational change has raised some issues that have been suppressed but latent in Spanish society, such as the preference for a republic, and that are now being fought in public demonstrations and televised debates. The supporters of this political change would like to see a more in-depth constitutional change and achieve the dissolution of the monarchy and the implementation of a republic.

Starting next Thursday, King Philip VI will have to deal with many issues which are currently dividing the public opinion in this country. It is a very difficult moment to take the lead because the country has been going through a very deep financial crisis during the last six years, an independence process is being debated in Cataluña, the Royal Family is suffering from a decrease in popularity and lack of support of younger generations, etc. The challenges that the new monarch will face will be many, and only time will tell if he is capable of conquering them.

On Thursday morning several ceremonies will take place. The first one will be at the Congress, where all the representatives of the three powers of the country will witness and sanction the formal proclamation of Philip VI as the new King of Spain. Note that there is not going to be a coronation ceremony as Spanish monarchs are not crowned but proclaimed, in a way to emphasize that they are not above other Spanish institutions, but rather working within the system. After the proclamation, the new Royal Couple, accompanied by their two young daughters, will cover the route from the Congress to the Royal Palace by car, so they can be seen and greeted by all the people. Finally, they will have their first official reception as King and Queen of Spain at the Royal Palace. Felipe and his wife Letizia (the first plebeian queen in Spanish History) have decided to keep all these ceremonies as private and low-key as possible, and for this reason they have not invited foreign representatives or political leaders. In any case, the reception at the Royal Palace will count over 1500 guests.

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