Spain’s King Juan Carlos is engulfed in scandal

The hard-working king with the common touch was once Europe’s most popular monarch.

Note: This article is from the Guardian.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Spain’s King Juan Carlos is engulfed in scandal” was written by Giles Tremlett, for The Guardian on Monday 4th March 2013 20.00 UTC

The elderly man who sold me my apartment was clear about Spain’s King Juan Carlos. “He is a traitor,” he said.

That was more than a decade ago, and it was a shocking – almost blasphemous – thing to say. Only diehard republicans and even harder-headed former Francoists criticised the monarch. Heliodoro was one of the latter, an unreconstructed extremist who never forgave Juan Carlos for using the powers he received from General Francisco Franco in 1975 to usher in democracy. Few would have agreed.

These days, however, Madrid seethes with discontented talk about the monarchy. The upset is proportional to the awed respect once accorded by almost everyone, including journalists who decided Juan Carlos was untouchable after he stopped a coup when civil guardsmen stormed the parliament in 1981.

As the 75-year-old monarch lies in a hospital bed this week, recovering from his fourth operation in 10 months, there is talk of both abdication and of controlling his use of taxpayers’ money. The king is not as weak in mind or body as Pope Benedict, but in Madrid there is also a feeling that an old institution needs shaking up – possibly with a new face.

How did it get to this? The hard-working king with the common touch was once Europe’s most popular monarch – a virtuous contrast to Britain’s distant and dysfunctional royals. I recall once getting lost and driving freely through the deer park surrounding his modest Madrid palace. The royal guards were completely unconcerned when I eventually reappeared in the wrong place.

Yet, as Spaniards endure double-dip recession, government austerity and 26% unemployment, royal privileges suddenly seem less understated. The king’s luxuries are beginning to grate.

Reminders of the royal lifestyle were plastered all over newspapers again this week. Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a stylish 48-year-old who uses a German ex-husband’s title to call herself “princess”, gave several interviews about her relationship with the monarch. This, she assured doubting Spaniards, was purely professional. She complained, indeed, that his family scandals were now damaging her business as a go-between in deals involving companies and governments – including in the oil-rich Middle East. “This is doing a lot of damage to my professional reputation,” she said.

Sayn-Wittgenstein’s name first became public knowledge after she appeared as the mystery woman who travelled to Botswana when King Juan Carlos – then honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – secretly joined a free elephant hunt. His wife, Queen Sofia, was left behind. Sayn-Wittgenstein said she had travelled with another former husband, Briton Philip Atkins. She and the king were no more than “close friends”, she told El Mundo , who had met nine years ago at the Duke of Westminster’s Spanish hunting estate.

Spaniards only found out about the king’s freebie after he tripped and broke his hip. The man who claimed he went to bed every night worrying about youth unemployment (currently at 55% among the under-25s) had to be flown home in a special aircraft and hospitalised. A chastened monarch gave an unprecedented apology. “I am very sorry,” he said. “I made a mistake. It will not happen again.” WWF members were not impressed. A few weeks later they sacked him.

Sayn-Wittgenstein’s help did not stop at joining him on safari. She also tried, at the king’s beckoning, to find his embattled son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, a job. Urdangarin, a former Olympic handball star who gained the title of Duke of Palma when he married Princess Cristina, is formally suspected of fraud, tax cheating and embezzlement. A court has told him and his business partner to post €8m (£6.9m) bail – though charges have not yet been presented. Now emails between Sayn-Wittgenstein and the royal son-in-law have begun to surface. “I was just trying to find him a suitable job,” she said, claiming that she had also done secret, unpaid work for the Spanish government.

Urdangarin has become a toxic royal asset – as damaging to Juan Carlos as the hundreds of thousands of unsold new homes left behind by a burst construction bubble are to the economy. He allegedly hid behind supposedly not-for-profit organisations as he sweated the royal brand for money. This mostly came from rightwing politicians who paid generous sums of taxpayers’ cash in return for proximity – and photo opportunities – with the royal son-in-law. Money was then allegedly siphoned to offshore accounts. Court documents leaked to the Cadena Ser radio station purport to show only 1.5% of the money passing through one foundation actually going to help disabled children.

Urdangarin denies wrongdoing and has tried to keep his wife – who sat on the board of one foundation – out of the picture, along with his father-in-law. “The king’s household neither opined on, advised, authorised or backed my activities,” he said in a statement. Many Spaniards do not believe him. A recent poll saw half say they thought Juan Carlos had helped his son-in-law land business deals. The vast majority said his wife must also have known.

Politicians have caught the popular mood. “From now on either the monarchy is transparent, or it may stop existing,” said Carme Chacón, a potential future socialist candidate for prime minister.

And what about the king’s reputation as a playboy? Attempts by two people claiming to be his illegitimate offspring to prove his paternity have stumbled across his status as a man who is, literally, above the law. A court threw out their writ on the basis of the king’s legal “inviolability”.

Juan Carlos’s son and heir, Prince Felipe, has stepped up temporarily to represent his father. With the king, who has disc problems, out of action for up to six months, some think the change should be permanent. Pere Navarro, head of the Catalan socialist party, said: “We need a new head of state.”

The palace recently took the unusual step of denying the abdication rumours. As the king lies in hospital, however, he may think there are more peaceful ways to see out his old age.

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