Spain’s model monarchy shoots itself in the foot.
King Juan Carlos’s solidarity with austerity-hit subjects collapses amid hunting trips, corruption claims and bedroom intrigue.
They were once the star royal family of Europe, seen as hard-working, frugal, modern and genuinely popular among ordinary Spaniards who adored King Juan Carlos as the great bringer of democracy.
But now Spain‘s royals have revealed an ability to shoot themselves in the foot, both literally and metaphorically, in a way that has left angry citizens wondering if they even notice how ordinary people are suffering.
As unemployment reached 24%, austerity measures bit and the economy headed back towards double-dip recession, the 74-year-old monarch had publicly claimed he lay in bed at night worrying about the plight of the young jobless. But a fall as he walked to the bathroom in an exclusive safari camp in Botswana, where he had gone to shoot elephants, water buffaloes and other exotic animals, has revealed a different story.
While Spaniards desperately sought work or struggled to meet basic needs, the king was on a hush-hush, all-expenses-paid hunting trip, blasting at animals in one of the world’s most exotic landscapes – Botswana’s Okavango delta.
His big-game-slaying holiday was estimated to cost €10,000 (£8,000) a day, with a Syrian businessman close to the Saudi royal family rumoured to be picking up the tab.
It was not the kind of thing Spaniards wanted to hear as the government announced health and education cuts and fears grew of a bailout accompanied by years of harsh austerity.
“We all have to tighten our belts a bit because of the difficult times for the economy,” the king had told them over the summer, as he backed austerity.
The hunting trip was just the latest in a series of gaffes which have seen Spain’s normally respectful press tear up a decades-old deal not to scrutinise the royal family.
That agreement had stayed in place since Juan Carlos inherited General Francisco Franco’s powers after the dictator’s death in 1975 and oversaw the restoration of monarchy and democracy. His role in quashing a 1981 coup attempt appeared to cement his position.
In recent months, however, the king has struggled to separate the monarchy from a corruption scandal surrounding his son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín, Duke of Palma.
The duke, a former Olympic medal winner with Spain’s handball team, denies allegations that he used charities as fronts for taking millions of euros in public money, some of it hidden from tax authorities, so that he could cash in on his royal title by appearing at events alongside politicians.
“Everyone, especially those of us with public functions, must behave correctly, in an exemplary fashion,” the king solemnly declared in his Christmas broadcast as the scandal snowballed and the monarchy’s popularity tumbled in opinion polls.
He hired a new public relations chief, former El País columnist Javier Ayuso, with glowing pro-monarchy editorials appearing in the centre-left daily and other newspapers. The royal palace’s accounts were also made public in what Spaniards were told was a new era of transparency.
But Juan Carlos’s attempts at portraying his family as hard-working, humble and law-abiding had taken a blow when his 13-year-old grandson, Froilán Marichalar, shot himself through the foot with a 36-calibre shotgun just a few days before the Botswana incident.
Newspapers reported that Froilán was too young to use the shotgun legally, raising further questions about whether the royals felt normal rules did not apply to them.
“These people just don’t understand the reality of this country,” complained Mercedes Munarriz, a sound engineer. “They even seem to be running a perfect campaign against themselves.”
But it was the king’s Botswana fall, which required him to fly back for a hip operation in Madrid, that provoked an unprecedented torrent of criticism of a monarch unused to harsh words from the press or mainstream politicians.