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Spain's King Juan Carlos fights new pressures to abdicate

Spain’s aging King Juan Carlos is intent on extending his reign and reaffirming his legacy of resurrecting the monarchy, but calls for his abdication are growing amid a simmering scandal over embezzlement of public funds incriminating his son-in-law, a duke. The scandal and climate here are proving a serious threat to the crown.

The special high court-led investigation is ongoing and the monarchy has tried to distance itself from Duke Iñaki Urdangarín, who is married to the king’s youngest daughter Princess Cristina.

The court said in January it found “more than enough” incriminating evidence of “criminal activity” to continue investigating Urdangarín for embezzling more than $8 million in public funds.

The king’s son-in-law has been excluded from public events and his profile has been deleted from the official web site of the monarchy.

The heir to the throne Prince Felipe went out of his way to avoid being seen in public with Urdangarín during a recent sporting event they both attended.

In an effort to turn a page, King Juan Carlos ruled out abdicating in January, despite flagging health, other scandals biting at his popularity, including an injury during a Botswana elephant hunting extravaganza paid by a Saudi businessman, something he later apologized for in a rare public TV broadcast.

“I’m in good shape, and above all with the spirit to confront the challenges we face,” he said Jan. 4, his first interview in more than a decade. “I would like to be remembered as the king who united all Spaniards and with them managed to recover democracy and the monarchy.”

But the embezzlement scandal threatens to preempt that. For a pampered royal who is also a former Olympian and professional handball athlete to be illegally profiting from state funds is angering the ordinary public.

“This is the biggest challenge the monarchy has faced since it was reinstated. It’s serious and of unpredictable consequences,” says José Antonio Escudero, a well-respected historian of the monarchy.

“This has generated corrosive and negative public opinion against the monarchy. What would benefit the monarchy most is that this issue is resolved as soon as possible...regardless of who it involves,” Mr. Escudero says.

Urdangarín allegedly used his ties to the crown and nobility to secure contracts with regional governments to organize sporting events, along with his partner Diego Torres. They used their non-profit organization as a front to then siphon money, in the process evading taxes. Both could face six charges that could carry more than 20 years of prison time.

When the court set bail at nearly $10 million, the pair were unable or unwilling to pay, and the court began this month to repossess properties owned by Urdangarin and Princess Cristina, including their small palace in Barcelona. (They are still living in the palace, but will likely lose it if convicted.) The personal secretary of the King’s two daughters has also been subpoenaed.

“It started with the son-in-law, but it will get bigger. This is enormously real and concrete, especially amid current social circumstances and considering the crown is a pillar of stability,” Escudero says.

Furthermore, the public debate over whether he should abdicate has been further fueled by decisions to step aside by Dutch counterpart Queen Beatrix, also 75, and Pope Benedict XVI, 85, Escudero says.

For many Spaniards, King Juan Carlos is a popular national figure, beloved for defending Spain’s young democracy and acting as guarantor of national identity.

The monarchy as a form of rule was abolished in 1931 after Spaniards voted in a republican government. Dictator General Francisco Franco, who rose to power after defeating the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War, named him prince and successor in 1969. Juan Carlos I became head of state in 1975 after Franco’s death.

He restored Spain’s democracy, naming a civilian government and legalizing outlawed political forces. In 1981 he also defended democracy after troops
attempted a military coup. Juan Carlos went on television condemning the perpetrators and privately demanded those involved to give up.

But Spaniards are shedding much of their unquestioned support. Two polls this year showed the crown waning in popularity. Spaniards who positively judge the King’s reign plummeted to just over 50 percent, from 75 percent in April 2012, according to the Sigma poll, published by El Mundo daily in January.

Slightly more Spaniards think he should abdicate now, than those who think he should continue.

The withering support for the crown, even if it’s still solid, “has to do especially with the recent corruption scandals,” says José Álvarez Junco, director of the Department of History of Thought and Social and Political Movements of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, author of numerous books, and former government adviser.

“But the monarchical feeling among Spaniards has never been very strong since the Republic. Spaniards are not monarchical, but Juan Carlistas,” says Mr. Junco, suggesting that the person of the king is more popular than the office.

“New generations who did not live through the transition, who don’t fear fascism, are more demanding and are not willing to tolerate sacrificing some things in exchange for democratic liberties, as our generation was,” Junco adds.

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