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Return of the king: Juan Carlos’ problematic Spanish homecoming

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MADRID — This weekend, things could get awkward in Spain.

The former king, Juan Carlos I, who abdicated in 2014, returned home on Thursday evening after nearly two years in self-exile in Abu Dhabi, having fled the country under a cloud of scandal.

The shelving earlier this year of investigations into his finances has cleared the way for his visit. But Juan Carlos’ return to Spain, to attend a sailing regatta in the north-western town of Sanxenxo, remains controversial, highlighting how the personal stock of the former king has plummeted, tainting his own legacy and hampering the reign of his son, King Felipe VI.

“This is someone who did a very good job, politically, and then at the end of his reign made a series of terrible personal and professional mistakes,” said Ana Romero, an author who has written several books about the Spanish monarchy. “[In Spain] he is not having to pay a legal price for what he has done, but there are things that he has to pay for morally.”

The return of Juan Carlos, 84, has been rumored since March, when the supreme court closed three probes into his finances.

One was into a $100 million payment he received in 2008 from the Saudi royal family. The investigation decided there was no evidence that the money had been a bribe linked to the awarding of a fast-train construction contract and found that regal immunity protected him from facing tax fraud charges. A second probe found he had not benefitted in recent years from an offshore fund in Jersey. The third case, related to more than €500,000 he received from a Mexican tycoon, was closed because Juan Carlos had paid €5 million to the Spanish tax authority to clear arrears.

Juan Carlos took the throne in 1975, on the death of his mentor, dictator Francisco Franco, helping usher in parliamentary democracy. His reputation was cemented in 1981 when he was seen to have acted decisively in thwarting an attempted coup d’état.

A respectful media kept its distance and his popularity remained robust for the next few decades. But revelations in 2012 that he had been on an elephant-hunting holiday in Botswana with his lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, as Spain was in the depths of the eurozone crisis, were tremendously damaging.

Juan Carlos abdicated two years later, but the scandals continued, culminating in his departure to Abu Dhabi in August 2020, a move instigated by his son, King Felipe VI.

“The decision by Felipe VI to send his father abroad was an attempt to put up a barrier between the decline of his father’s image and the crown as an institution,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“But this whole plan has been a bit of a fiasco,” he added. “It looked like [Juan Carlos] was fleeing the justice system.”

Felipe, 54, is seen as a more austere figure and he has taken steps to make the royal family’s accounts more transparent. He has also distanced himself from his father, avoiding meeting with him last Sunday during an official visit to the United Arab Emirates. On Monday, however, they are due to meet in Madrid before Juan Carlos flies back to his residence in Abu Dhabi.

King Felipe VI of Spain and the former king, Juan Carlos I, attend the official abdication ceremony at the Royal Palace in 2014 | Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Felipe has not been able to prevent Juan Carlos’ personal fall from grace from eroding the crown’s image, particularly among younger voters who have no memory of the former king’s achievements. A 2021 poll found that 31 percent of those asked were in favor of the monarchy and 39 percent in favor of a republic.

This has placed the monarchy, unwittingly, in the political arena, making it yet another cause of division between left and right.

The Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has tended to put its historic republicanism to one side during the democratic era, seeing the monarchy as providing stability. But while the party continues to support the institution, it no longer defends the former head of state. Sánchez said that Juan Carlos “has to clarify all the information that we’ve been hearing about …which paints a picture of a certain kind of behavior.”

The junior partner in the coalition government, the far-left Unidas Podemos (UP), is more strident. Party spokesman Pablo Echenique said that the ex-king’s planned return shows that “he can commit crimes without facing penal consequences, that he can return to Spain and laugh at the Spanish people.”

By contrast, the conservative Popular Party (PP) has supported his decision to visit and Iván Espinosa, of the far-right Vox, said the former monarch “has nothing to hide, despite the continuous attempts by the left to single him out and falsely accuse him.”

As part of efforts to push back against the narrative of a lavish royal who had skirted the rules, the pro-monarchy Concordia Real Española association has published a report claiming he generated €62 billion for the Spanish economy during his reign.

Despite the shelving of the investigations into his finances, the legal coast is still not clear for Juan Carlos. A British court recently ruled that he cannot claim regal immunity there to avoid a possible trial brought by zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who accuses him of waging a campaign of harassment against her after their relationship ended.

But it appears unlikely that the monarchy is in jeopardy — at least in the short term. Major constitutional change would require the kind of political consensus that is rarely seen in Spain.

“The more polarized and fragmented Spanish politics is, the more difficult it will be to gather the parliamentary support to carry out such a reform,” said Simón.

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