As a historian of Spain’s republican past, I watched with fascination as, last night, following news of Juan Carlos I’s abdication, thousands took to the streets in Spain and abroad to demand a referendum on the monarchy, giving new impulse to republican dreams. 1 Every year demonstrations take place on 14 April in Spain which champion the country’s republican past, so this is not a new phenomenon, but these demonstrations come at a moment of political crisis in Spain and have fuelled renewed questioning into the legitimacy of the monarchy to lead the country.

7118287175_668e691cef_zSpain’s last experience of a Republic was in the 1930s. By April 1931 support for Alfonso XIII had melted away and he fled into exile after losing municipal elections perceived as a referendum on the monarchy. In contrast, Juan Carlos I’s abdication, while announced suddenly, appears to have been very carefully planned. It was decided in January, secretly agreed with the two main political parties, the Popular Party (PP) and Socialist Party (PSOE), and the necessary legislation is to be hurried through today in order to proclaim Juan Carlos’ son Felipe king on 16 June. Calls for a referendum will, in all likelihood, be ignored.

But even with such careful planning, the moment to announce the abdication is an odd one. It’s barely a week since the European elections, which were a disaster for the PP and PSOE. The combined vote for the two parties fell from 80% in 2009 to less than 50% of votes cast – the first time this has happened to the two parties which have dominated Spain since the Transition. Meanwhile, the United Left and Podemos, a new left-wing citizen-based political movement, obtained nearly 3 million votes between them. The parties are enjoying a surge in support and lead the calls for a referendum.

Pressure has come to bear on the monarchy at a time when Spain is suffering a deep crisis of confidence in its political system and institutions, which seem unable to solve the problems faced by the country, which include high unemployment and corruption. Disillusionment turned into a widespread movement three years ago when the indignados of 2011 called for ‘Real democracy, now!’ while even the surge in demands for Catalan independence can also be interpreted as the result of this disenchantment.

The Second Republic (1931-6) was envisaged by Republicans as a social and political project which would modernise Spain, hauling it into the twentieth century. In the end, the project was cut short, defeated in the Civil War by the Francoist dictatorship (1939-75). In some ways, the current situation in Spain is the challenge of whether the Spain which emerged from the Transition in the late 1970s is strong enough to support the pressures of and adapt to the twenty-first century.

And one of the problems is precisely that of legitimacy. When the question is raised of Juan Carlos’ origins, given that he was appointed by dictator Franco as his successor in 1969, defenders of the king point to his actions. Juan Carlos is often credited with piloting Spain through the Transition and saving the country from an attempted coup in February 1981. But while once a popular monarch, more recently he has been undermined by scandals, including an hunting affair in Africa and a corruption case centred on his son-in-law, which severely damaged his public image, in addition to being dogged by health problems (including eight operations in the last three years).

Undoubtedly some feel that crown prince Felipe will bring new life and energy to the monarchy, given that public opinion has a better opinion of the prince than the king, and it was precisely this youthful energy that the king alluded to in his abdication statement. The calls for a Republic pose changing the political structures of the country, of resetting the political system, as a different way forward. To avoid a deeper crisis of the monarchy, Felipe and his supporters will need to bolster the legitimacy of the crown.

We’ll probably never know if the memory of Alfonso XIII weighed in Juan Carlos’ I mind when considering abdication. Spain is both a very different country and in a very different situation in 2014 to 1931 and while there is popular pressure for a referendum, it seems unlikely. But whatever happens over the coming days, the Republican tricolor will continue to be unfurled, protests will continue and neither the shadow of Franco nor the ghost of the Second Republic are likely to go away.

Matthew Kerry is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield working on political identities in Asturias in northern Spain during the Second Republic. You can find him on twitter @MDKerry and read his other History Matters blogs here.

Header image: The demonstration demanding a referendum on the monarchy in the Plaza del Sol, Madrid (2 June 2014) ©Asamblea popular de Carabanchel [via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

Inset image: A photo taken by Alfonso Sánchez Portela on the proclamation of the Second Republic in the Plaza del Sol, Madrid (14 April 1931) [via  Flickr]


  1. Within 24 hours, an online petition has already collected over 170,000 signatures.
Tags : abdicationabdication of Juan Carlos IdemocracyEuropean electionsJuan Carlos ImonarchyprotestreferendumrepublicrepublicanismSpainSpanish history
Matthew Kerry

The author Matthew Kerry


  1. An interesting read, thanks! Many local republicans were out last night in my town celebrating – though, as you say, I don’t think they’re going to get their vote!
    Conspiracy theorists and even non-theorists like myself believe the “Catalan issue” may have played a part too. Some elder Catalan politicians, newspaper editors and businessmen (the establishment) have called for the independence referendum to be called off and a so-called “third way” negotiated with Spain (neither independence, nor the status quo, the – for now, non-existent – third way apparently involves a federal structure for Spain and special fiscal agreements for Catalonia). The Third Way has gained little support as (a) for 40 years there has been no movement in this direction from Madrid, and (b) only the Catalan establishment are proposing this solution, with the PP and PSOE ignoring it.
    So, the theory is that a new modern untainted king may be the person who can drag Spain into the 21st century – or at least promise he will, long enough to cool down Catalan aspirations by convincing them that now there is a chance of a deal with Spain. Not Felipe VI himself of course (he’s more likely to play the role of a rabbit caught in headlines), but around his symbolism, perhaps the Spanish establishment can offer these deals without losing face with their supporters.
    Given the poor health of the King, it’s been rumoured for some time that he may abdicate, and given that nothing happens here in August, and very little in July, and football takes over next week; and from September onwards Spain and Catalonia will be embroiled in a fierce battle over the November referendum (so they need stability in Madrid by then), it seems like now (post-elections too) was the perfect moment to go!
    Brian Cutts
    Tortosa, Catalonia.

    1. Thanks very much for the comments. I do wonder why they didn’t wait for the football to get started though, so that people were looking to the other side of the Atlantic, or until August when everyone is on holiday. It does strike me as odd to have done it now what with the wave of Podemos and the mobilisation around Can Vies in Barcelona, and the jailing of two peaceful picketers in Granada (though admittedly these last two have received little coverage from the mainstream press). This all makes me think there must be another motive (possibly about Urdangarin or something coming to light?) that made them want to suddenly get this out of the way as soon as possible.
      I’m not sure whether I see that the ‘PPSOE’ consider Felipe more palatable to the Catalans and more capable of negotiating a deal – it strikes me altogether as a separate issue. I’m not that in touch with the Catalan issue at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if CiU and the PP could come to some sort of agreement, though I’m sure they’ve all been taken aback by the rise and rise of Ezquerra and popular pressure will certainly keep CiU on their toes. As always, there’s always room for negotiation, manoeuvring and horse-trading – those who bang on about being unable to authorise a referendum etc etc by brandishing the Constitution as an unchangeable and inflexible document had no problem in ‘reforming’ it in September 2011!

  2. I think it was just “bad luck” with the Podemos / Can Vies coinciding, as they’d probably set this window for action months back. Between elections and summer. El Mundo is saying today that JC realised if he didn’t go before Catalan issue got tough (i.e. Sept-Nov), he wouldn’t be able to leave for maybe two years (optimistically thinking his is a stablizing role for Spain in times of turmoil!)
    Regarding Catalan question, I think there’s no turning back and president Mas has realised it. It’s all or nothing now, the people wouldn’t take another Deal with Spain! Interesting times!

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