- - Monday, April 30, 2012

MADRID — King Juan Carlos’ 36-year honeymoon with the Spanish people is officially over.

Many are reconsidering the value of the monarchy, and some are calling for a royal abdication after several scandals, including a luxury African safari during a bitter economic crisis.

“Over the years, the king has been allowed a lot of things, but the economic crisis that Spain is going through has made his lifestyle more noticeable,” said Rocio Fernandez, 25, who works in the pharmaceutical industry in Madrid. “Taking into account the times we’re living in, he should be setting an example.”

Jose Apezarena, a veteran royal watcher and author of a biography of heir apparent Prince Felipe, said, “The monarchy needs to explain its role in Spain, something it has not had to do up to now.

“It has to communicate that it’s meaningful for [Spanish society] and for the international image of this country. Also, from now it will have to be more open.”

Since his royal anointment in November 1975, King Juan Carlos has taken several extravagant and controversial trips.

But in mid-April, his safari in Botswana - estimated to have cost as much as $53,000 - made headlines because the 74-year-old monarch broke his hip and had to be flown home to Madrid.

The timing could not have been worse.

Spain’s creditworthiness had reached a historic low, and Argentina was finalizing the nationalization of YPF, an affiliate of the Spanish oil company Repsol.

In addition, the government announced that Spain’s unemployment rate had hit 24.4 percent - the highest in Europe - and youth joblessness had reached 52 percent. Economists were predicting a financial bailout.

As a result, a photograph of the king happily posing with a gun and a dead elephant that actually was taken in 2006 went viral on the Internet, a portrait intended to show how out of touch the monarch is, observers said.

A scandalous year

The safari was the latest scandal that kept the royal family on the front pages in the past year, during which its approval rating dropped to below 50 percent, according to a recent poll by the Center for Sociological Studies.

The king’s son-in-law - Duke Inaki Urdangarin, husband of Princess Cristina - is standing trial on charges of pocketing almost $8 million from public contracts. He is suspected of using a nonprofit group as a cover to transfer the money to private offshore accounts.

The duke, who has appeared once before the judge, has not been charged with a crime but has been suspended from participating in official events with the royal family.

Investigators are looking into whether King Juan Carlos and Princess Cristina are involved, according to information leaked to El Pais newspaper.

On April 9, the king’s eldest grandson was hospitalized after shooting himself in the foot.

Prosecutors are considering whether to charge the boy’s father, the king’s former son-in-law, for allowing the 13-year-old to operate a firearm. Spanish law forbids anyone younger than 14 from using a firearm.

Many Spaniards have expressed irritation that while the government continues to make deep budget cuts, the royal family’s allowance has decreased by only 2 percent and was excluded from a law enacted to clarify how tax revenue is spent.

Unlike many of Europe’s other royals, the Spanish monarchy never has been subject to public criticism before, particularly in the media.

That’s because since the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spaniards have been grateful to King Juan Carlos for his key role in securing democracy. He also is credited with saving Spain’s infant democracy after disavowing a coup attempt in 1981 and urging plotters to surrender.

‘Anything could happen’

Now faced with growing public anger, including calls for the king to abdicate in favor of his only son, Prince Felipe, the king has done the unthinkable: He has apologized for the trip.

“It was wrong, and it won’t happen again,” King Juan Carlos said last week.

Observers say he had no choice.

In Spain, “the idea of the monarchy itself has more to do with popular support than with logic,” said Mr. Apezarena, the biographer.

Mainstream politicians, meanwhile, have been silent on the subject of abdication or of a Spanish republic.

“The two main political parties know that Spain can’t afford the luxury to start a debate about this,” Mr. Apezarena said. “Not in a moment like this.”

Analysts say the monarchy will have to work to restore its legitimacy if it hopes to survive.

Fernando Rayon, who has written several books about the royal family, said the government should draft legislation to regulate the monarchy as an institution.

He said older Spaniards have negative feelings about forming a republic because of “the disastrous experience” in the 1930s, just before the country descended into civil war.

To save the monarchy, Prince Felipe should take over, Mr. Rayon said.

“When the young think about the monarchy, they only take into account if it’s useful or not,” he said. “[Felipe] is closer in age to the younger generation” and could relate to them.

Although it is rare for monarchs to give up the throne, many in Spain believe it is possible but unlikely.

“Royal families are institutions from the past. They are decorative organizations. But when things get bad [economically], people start to question things they had always taken for granted,” said Claudio Perez, 45, a gallery owner in Madrid. “We are living in troubled times. Anything could happen.”

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