Change At The Top

It has been an interesting couple of weeks to me. People, and things to do with people have always fascinated me and there are few pleasures greater than sitting in the sun with a coffee, a beer or maybe a glass of wine and watching people going about their daily lives. And then there are what I might describe as the set pieces, an important group of which is politics; people expressing their hopes, desires, frustrations and converting that into voting - or not. So first we had the European elections, where the major parties in the UK and here in Spain had an uncomfortable ride. And then King Juan Carlos announced that he was stepping down in favour of his son, Felipe. My first thought, shared by many Spaniards that I know was, “Why now?” The previous king, Alfonso XIII, the present king’s grandfather, also abdicated in 19331 and went into exile, being replaced by the Second Republic, which in turn was overthrown by a military coup followed by the Civil War from 1936 to 1939, from which Franco emerged as the dictator, holding power until his death in 1975. At that point, Juan Carlos who had been groomed by Franco to succeed him ascended to the throne. To everyone’s surprise - and no doubt to Franco’s also if he was watching from another place - he rejected the role envisaged for him by Franco and declared his intention to introduce a democratic constitution to Spain, with his own role reduced to that of constitutional head of state, outside politics and with no powers of his own. When, two years later, a Civil Guard colonel led his men into the chamber of the House of Deputies during a debate and began firing shots into the air, the King donned his military uniform and as head of the armed forces went onto television and ordered all armed forces to remain in their barracks, or if they had left the barracks to return there immediately. The attempted coup collapsed and Juan Carlos’s acceptance by the Spanish people was cemented. Sadly, of late the Spanish have become increasingly disillusioned with their king. He has not become any less of a democrat, but he has been less sensitive than was wise to the hardships suffered by his people in the recent economic crisis. His reputation was not improved when he fell and broke his hip at the height of the crisis. You might expect this to generate sympathy; unfortunately, he fell in Botswana during a luxury holiday, shooting elephants. More recently, his son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarín, has become embroiled in a fraud and money-laundering scandal which at one point threatened to incriminate the Infanta Cristina, the king’s younger daughter. Add to this the fact that he is now 76 and not in the best of health, and abdication seems quite a sensible move. Even so, why now? Well, that may not be entirely unconnected to the shock suffered by the two main political parties in the European elections. Both suffered a significant loss of share of the vote to smaller parties, and for the first time Partido Popular and Partido Socialista Obrera Espannol failed to secure 50% of the vote between them. Most striking of all, Podemos (We Can), a party formed only three months ago, secured five of the Spanish seats in Brussels. Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister and Leader of PP, has survived, but his opposite number at PSOE, Alfredo Rubalcaba, has resigned. Am I being cynical when I suggest that maybe a distraction was needed? Whatever, despite murmurings from republicans, it looks as if we shall have a new king and queen on June 19th, Felipe and Letizia. Interestingly, they have a similar image to William and Kate in Britain. Each royal heir has met and married a woman from outside the realms of European royalty or aristocracy, and each wife brings not just fresh blood but also fresh insights and understandings to their future role.

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