For many people, especially Americans, royalty is a thing of the past. Critics call it an expensive and unnecessary anachronism. In Spain, however, it was the vehicle for long lasting Democracy.
In some ways, King Juan Carlos can be called Spain’s George Washington. As dictator Francisco Franco’s handpicked successor, Juan Carlos rose to the Spanish throne in 1975 with wide powers. He swore to continue Franco’s post-Civil War authoritarian movement, which managed to survive the fall of fascism elsewhere in Europe. However, almost immediately upon taking office, he began the process of democratization and national reconciliation. The King not only gave up power, but also used his hard-earned prestige to secure the success of the democratic experiment.
King Juan Carlos faced skepticism and hostility from the right and the left. His own father, Don Juan de Borbon y Battenberg, the exiled rightful dynastic heir to the Spanish throne, had doubts about his son’s democratizing intentions and was often uncomfortable about Juan Carlos’ relationship with Franco. On the other end of the ideological spectrum were the military and Franco’s cronies, determined to protect the hard-line regime. In the end, the King gained the acceptance of the left, the love of many in the middle and managed to neutralize the far right, despite several coup attempts.
King Juan Carlos has ruled Spain for more than 35 years, most of which under a Constitution he helped promulgate with popular support. The path to the throne started when he was just a boy, after his father sent him to Spain to be educated under Franco, hoping it would help lead to a restoration of the monarchy under the Bourbon dynasty. The plan came close to failing several times. In fact, it was often more of an improvised gamble than a well thought out plan. It was Juan Carlos who made it work. Historian Paul Preston, author of Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy, says the King was often the only reason Democracy survived.
In his book, Preston quotes a Spanish commentator who said, “Whilst we Spaniards thought we deserved something better than a king, it turns out that we have a king we don’t deserve.” Because of their commitment to pluralistic politics and their warm relationship with the citizenry, the Spanish royals enjoy strong approval ratings. Spain went through several false starts toward Democracy and much bloodshed in the process. King Juan Carlos was the leader who made it stick.