Long Live the King?

As most people know, Spain is in the middle of a catastrophic economic crisis.  But what most people don’t know is that the country is suffering a political and identity crisis as well.  The Spain that was formed during its transition to democracy in the late 1970s is fraying.  While countries all over the Western world have seen trust in their institutions and politicians decline in step with their economies, the crisis of confidence in Spain is of a whole other magnitude.  The human suffering caused by the economic crisis, and the never-ending political scandals accompanying it, has led large percentages of Spaniards to question even the most basic assumptions of their country, in particular whether there should still be a monarchy.

First, a bit of history.  In 1931, Spain ousted its king and established the Second Republic.  But, the republic was short lived; within five years the country was mired in a brutal civil war, which was won in 1939 by Francisco Franco and his nationalist supporters.  For the next 36 years, Franco ruled as dictator.  However, Franco was a monarchist and conservative at heart, and in 1947 proclaimed Spain a monarchy once again.  But, unwilling to share power and uninterested in proclaiming himself king, he left the throne vacant and continued to rule alone.  It wasn’t until 1969 that Franco finally anointed a future king and heir – Juan Carlos de Borbón.

Juan Carlos was crowned King on November 27th, 1975, two days after Franco died.  The restoration of the monarchy was controversial.  Many on the left believed the King would continue Franco’s authoritarian government and instead wanted the country to return to being a republic.  However, Juan Carlos surprised many on both the left and right by using his position of influence to support the country’s transition to democracy; of particular importance was his public opposition to an attempted coup by members of the military on February 23rd, 1981.  As a result of this history, the Spanish monarchy has a complicated reputation and legacy.  On the one hand, it will forever be associated with Franco, since it was his wish that Spain continue as a monarchy.  However, on the other hand, Juan Carlos resisted the urge to follow in Franco’s steps as a dictator and instead guided the country to democracy.  For this he earned the vast majority of his countrymen’s respect and gratitude, despite the latent republicanism of many Spaniards.

The economic crisis has disrupted this delicate balance and reactivated the republicanism of many citizens.  Support for the King and the monarchy in general has fallen over the past years.  It’s common these days to see protests against the government where people are flying the republican tricolor flag.  Dissatisfaction is especially high among the young; many of my Spanish friends rail against the monarchy on Facebook, and be ready for a long conversation if you ask them their opinion in person.  When I ask my friends why they want to do away with the monarchy, they tell me it’s a costly, undemocratic, and unnecessary anachronism.  In their eyes, it cements the idea of social inequality and privilege and adds nothing to the country that a republic couldn’t provide.  While I understand their opinion, I don’t agree with it 100%.

A constitutional monarchy offers many advantages over a republic that are worth considering.  That’s not to say I would be in favor of converting my country, the United States, to a constitutional monarchy.  The U.S. has an uninterrupted history as a republic and boasts a strong anti-monarchist tradition.  It’s an integral part of our identity and no potential benefits from converting to a constitutional monarchy are worth tampering with such a bedrock of American society.  Of course, at a certain level, this is a moral and ideological question not just for Americans but for anyone with an opinion.  If you’re anti-monarchist because you find the idea of royalty morally corrupt, then there’s no benefit high enough to make it worth keeping.  But, for those who look at the crown and are tempted to judge it based on a strict cost/benefit analysis, I offer a few points worth contemplating.

The first important thing to recognize is that in a constitutional monarchy, the crown is apolitical.  This is a key strength.  It means the King can use his position to shine light on important issues without politicizing them.  For example, if the King decides to talk about conserving endangered species, he can draw attention to the issue without immediately turning it into a question of right vs. left.  The public can then investigate the topic on its own and decide whether it’s in favor or against the idea.  Likewise, because the King does not need to be reelected, he is free to opine on issues that elected politicians might avoid.  Through these ways, the monarchy can act essentially as a national editor, using its celebrity and clout to impact public debate.

In a similar vein, the monarchy can use its status to bring together people who would normally never be in the same room or talk to one another.  Even the simple act of hosting a dinner party can have important consequences.  After all, who would decline an invitation from royalty?  As such, if the King wishes to do so, he could arrange to have the CEO of Repsol sit next to the head of Greenpeace España.  While the dinner is likely to end in lots of shouting and furrowed brows, there’s also the chance that the two leaders could, through getting to know one another, form a relationship that produces a new dynamic in the long-running energy vs. environment debate.  The value of knowledge spillovers has long been recognized and by using his influence to promote interactions between eclectic groups, the King applies this powerful tactic at a high level, with potentially big results for society.

Finally, the monarchy helps promote Spanish interests both at home and abroad.  For example, the King recently traveled to the Middle East to promote investment in Spain’s recovering economy and to support the bids of Spanish companies for several large public works projects in the region.  While this is a duty many presidents fulfill, the King has several added advantages, such as his ability to form his schedule around things other than politics; the King can take a week-long hunting trip with another head of state, a president can’t.  Additionally, the King benefits from simply being a king.  Many countries are still full-fledged monarchies or are run by authoritarian governments.  The leaders of these states might very well relate better to a monarch than to a democratically elected president.  In a way it’s like being a member of an exclusive global fraternity.  The monarchy gives Spain access to this club and the authoritarian countries it does business with know they have access to someone at the highest levels of government who understands their needs.

It’s understandable that Spaniards are angry at the economic and political elites that run their country.  The crisis has revealed their staggering incompetence, corruption, and indifference.  However, the system as a whole is still valuable and shouldn’t be so easily cast aside in a moment of distress.  Spain has made remarkable progress since its transition to democracy nearly 40 years ago, and the King has played an integral role in this development.   I’m confident Spain will continue to thrive for decades to come, with or without a monarch.  But, I’m also convinced that replacing the constitutional monarchy with a republic would not be cost-free.  Ultimately it’s up to the Spanish to decide what they want.  I just hope they have a debate worthy of such a monumental change.

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