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.
Spain’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]