In Break With Tradition, It's Open Season on the Royal Family

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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's 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 Enríquez, 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."

Thousands of people demonstrated against the monarchy in central Madrid on 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.

Last week, 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 Iñaki Urdangarin, the king's son-in-law. The matter touched on the king himself last week, when the royal household was confronted with claims that Juan Carlos had personally intervened to secure the appointment of Mr. 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 Mr. 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 e-mail messages that have been leaked in the investigation of Mr. Urdangarin, which concerns lucrative contracts he was given by Spanish regional governments to organize sports events.

The judge in the case also recently subpoenaed Mr. 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 José 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 Mr. Zarzalejos, who describes himself as "an absolute monarchist."

He said that during his tenure as ABC's editor, he was not subject to formal censorship from the royal household, but voluntarily restrained coverage of the monarchy, as other mainstream publications did.

"The media consented not to publish some things," Mr. Zarzalejos said. "That wasn't driven by fear, but instead by respect and gratefulness" for the role the king played in anchoring Spain's return to democracy after decades of dictatorship under Franco.

A spokesman for the royal household said it was well aware of the fall in popularity of the monarchy and the king himself, but also said the monarchy remained more popular than many other institutions in the country. The spokesman underlined efforts to make the royal household more transparent, including greater disclosure about its financial assets, which would be required under a broader law that Mr. Rajoy's government is pushing through Parliament.

But Ms. Enríquez, the former television correspondent, said that in today's Spain, the family may have had little choice: "The royal household itself has come to understand that it could not stay out of such a transparency law without provoking a genuine public clamor."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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