MADRID — For decades, the members of Spain’s royal family were treated with profound deference by the public, politicians and the media. Their private lives generally went uninvestigated, their whereabouts unreported, and the sources of King Juan Carlos’ vast personal wealth were not discussed, even though he came to the throne with almost no money in 1975, after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco.
But times have changed, both for the king and the country. Spain is in the midst of an economic and identity crisis, having tied its fortunes to the now-troubled European Monetary Union. The 75-year-old king is increasingly unpopular, and polls suggest that far from attracting sympathy, his declining health has intensified calls for him to abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Felipe, his 45-year-old son.
Politicians and journalists are starting to dig deeper now, and the taboos are falling away. Almost every week, the royal family seems to be confronted with fresh embarrassments and accusations, some leveled at the king himself, and nearly every aspect of the family’s personal and financial life has become fair game.
“The protective shield of the royal family has simply disappeared,” said Carmen Enriquez, who has written several books about the royal family and who served as the royal correspondent for Spain’s national television network for almost two decades. “We are in a serious crisis, where suffering citizens feel they should know where every cent of public money is being spent, including by the monarchy.”
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Thousands of people demonstrated against the monarchy in central Madrid last Sunday, the 82nd anniversary of the establishment of Spain’s last Republican government, which was supplanted by the Franco dictatorship after a civil war. Several demonstrators held posters calling for Spain to replace Juan Carlos with an elected head of state.
Earlier this month, the main Socialist opposition party took steps in Parliament that, for the first time, formally requested information about the king’s personal finances. The request followed a report in the newspaper El Mundo asserting that Juan Carlos had stashed money in secret Swiss bank accounts he inherited from his father. The royal household said it would look into the allegations before issuing any response.
Also this month, a book that makes several embarrassing claims about the personal history of Princess Letizia, the wife of Felipe, was published. It sold out almost immediately. The book was written by David Rocasolano, a cousin of the princess whom she once employed as a lawyer.
The book drew immediate scorn from royal supporters, who said it was inaccurate and amounted to an act of treason. Whatever its accuracy, the publication underlined the breadth and intensity of the criticism being leveled against the royal family.
The wedge that has exposed the family to deep scrutiny is probably the corruption investigation centered on Inaki Urdangarin, the king’s son-in-law. The matter touched on the king himself, when the royal household was confronted this month with claims that Juan Carlos had personally intervened to secure the appointment of Urdangarin, a former Olympic handball player, as assistant coach of the national team of Qatar. The palace said that while the king had telephoned Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar several times, their conversations were related to a Spanish shipbuilding contract and not to Urdangarin’s sporting ambitions.
That the news media raised the issue at all was surprising. Calling on influential friends has long been the king’s way of conducting business for the family, according to royal watchers. That pattern is also seen in email messages that have been leaked in the investigation of Urdangarin, which concerns lucrative contracts he was given by Spanish regional governments to organize sports events.
The judge in the case also recently subpoenaed Urdangarin’s wife, Princess Cristina — an unprecedented step by Spain’s courts that further tarnished the royal image.
The royals are not the only ones coming under greater scrutiny: Almost no political party in Spain has been spared an inquiry. Arguably, the most damaging landed on the doorstep of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his governing Popular Party, which is accused of operating a slush fund. Nearly every institution of power in the country has been touched by corruption and popular disillusionment.
Still, the royal family’s fall from popular grace is probably the most striking example. It seemed to start in earnest last April when the king was forced to make a highly unusual apology after returning from a lavish elephant-hunting excursion to Botswana, which came to public attention only because he fell and broke his hip on the trip.
Since then, the king has undergone more surgical procedures, prompting even some supporters of the monarchy to suggest that he abdicate, including the prominent political columnist Jose Antonio Zarzalejos, a former editor-in-chief of the conservative newspaper ABC.
“The king is clearly not in perfect health, and has made many errors, so he doesn’t have the capacity to lead that his son does,” said Zarzalejos, who describes himself as “an absolute monarchist.”