Spain’s King Juan Carlos gives up the throne

At the start of his reign he played a crucial part in the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now he is abdicating in favour of his son. But does Spain need a monarchy at all?

While any monarch’s life is far from ordinary, few have reigns as remarkable as that of Spain’s King Juan Carlos I. This week he announced that he will abdicate in favour of his son, Prince Felipe.

The 76-year-old king has been on the throne for nearly four decades and until 2012 he was a hugely popular figure in Spain. However, his deteriorating health and a spate of scandals have both taken their toll. In a televised address he said it is time for ‘younger people with new energies’ to continue his work.

Spain’s monarchy almost came to an end in 1931 when republicans took control of the country. The royal family was forced to flee and Juan Carlos was born in exile in Italy. After Spain’s bloody civil war ended in 1936 General Franco emerged as the country’s authoritarian ruler. While he distrusted the monarchy, he allowed the young prince to return and be educated in Spain.

Franco grew very close to Juan Carlos and made him his successor, believing he would continue his despotic legacy. Yet Juan Carlos secretly held democratic views, and when he took over after Franco’s death in 1975, he lifted the bans on political parties and oversaw fair elections two years later.

This new democracy was threatened in 1981 when 200 armed officers burst into Spain’s parliament and declared a coup d’état. But the next day Juan Carlos denounced it on TV and the plot soon ran out of steam.

The king’s great popularity continued until 2012, when it was revealed that he had been on an extravagant elephant-hunting trip in Africa while millions of ordinary Spaniards were suffering the effects of a devastating recession. His daughter also became embroiled in a tax fraud and money-laundering case which further damaged royal credibility.

The crown now passes to Prince Felipe, a former Olympic yachtsman free from any hint of corruption. Yet a poll last year found 40% of Spaniards would like to see the monarchy abolished altogether. Is it time for this institution to go?

Crowning moment

Some people look at the achievements of Juan Carlos and say they show how much difference a good monarch can make to his country. His ill health makes now a good time to hand over power, allowing Felipe to continue his father’s legacy of supporting all his subjects and act as a symbol of continuity.

Yet others say that while some of Juan Carlos’s actions were exceptional, a monarchy is no longer necessary. Spain is a now a mature democracy. With its unemployment rate still above 25%, this is no time for the state to be funding the display of a ceremonial monarchy. The best way to celebrate Juan Carlos’s legacy would be to continue in the democratic direction he started, and make Spain a republic.

You Decide

  1. Is it time for Spain to get rid of its monarchy altogether?
  2. ‘All that monarchs really symbolise is that people are never born with equal opportunities in life.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, try to list all the positive and negative points of monarchy as a system of government. Then gather up all the points from the class and hold a discussion on them. Have a vote on whether you would prefer to live in a monarchy or not.
  2. Creative writing: put yourself in the position of a young Juan Carlos. You are highly liked by a dictator who wants to make you his successor, but you have to keep your own views on his injustices secret. Write a diary entry about how you might feel.

Some People Say...

“The monarchy gives us a connection with our history that is more vital now than ever.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about Spain’s monarchy?
Juan Carlos is the third European sovereign (including Pope Benedict XVI) to abdicate in 18 months, so perhaps this trend will have relevance for the UK’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Juan Carlos played a remarkable role in bringing democracy to a country of 47 million people, so his actions have been highly significant for a great many people.
Is Prince Felipe any more popular than his father?
A survey last year found that 60% of Spaniards would like Juan Carlos to abdicate in favour of his son, so it appears to be a widely supported move. Like Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II in the UK, Felipe has already taken over many ceremonial functions as his father has become frailer.

Word Watch

When a monarch gives up their office. Of Spain’s last eight monarchs, one was overthrown by his son, two abdicated and two were driven out by popular uprisings.
Those committed to government without a monarchy. The republicans were democratically elected, but in the Spanish Civil War they were defeated by Franco’s nationalists.
General Franco disliked the changes the republicans had made and after a civil war he gained control of Spain. A period of repression followed. Historians estimate 400,000 people died in concentration camps.
Coup d’état
The sudden overthrow of a government. This particular coup is known as 23-F, after the date on which it began, 23rd February. The army officers behind the coup opposed the move to democracy.
Spain was heavily indebted when the financial crisis struck in 2008 and further damaged by the subsequent eurozone crisis. After years of austerity the situation is now beginning to improve.
Princess Cristina owns companies which were accused of quietly paying ‘staff’ millions for not actually doing anything.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.