On June 2nd 2014, King Juan Carlos I of Spain announced his decision to abdicate the Spanish throne in favour of his son, 46-year-old Prince Felipe. The 76-year-old monarch has seen his once overwhelming popularity decrease in the later part of his reign, especially after the disclosure of his elephant hunting trip to Botswana in the middle of Spain’s economic recession and the embarrassing corruption scandal involving Princess Cristina and her husband during the past year. Nevertheless, the King’s decision to abdicate the Spanish throne has come as a surprise to the general public.
King Juan Carlos’ abdication has opened the door to a possible change in Spain’s constitutional system. During this past week, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in more than 40 different Spanish cities to demand a referendum on whether the state system should remain a monarchy or switch to a republican model. According to a 1,000 people survey carried out by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, 62 percent of the Spanish populace are in favour of calling a referendum to decide on this matter. This number is particularly high among young Spaniards: 74 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 want to vote on whether to keep Spain as a monarchy. Meanwhile, the main political parties have hurriedly approved a new abdication law that will grant prince Felipe a swift succession to the throne.
A referendum on Spain’s monarchy is a legitimate request (and one that has received a great deal of coverage in the Spanish media over the past few weeks). It is also an attractive issue to rally about in a country where frustration with the political class is pervasive and citizens’ concerns about corruption and unemployment are regularly ignored. The two main political parties, PP and PSOE, have been plagued with corruption scandals for years without facing any real consequences and unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remains one of the highest in Europe. The main centre for sociological investigations in Spain (CIS) has repeatedly shown that the issues that troubles Spanish people the most are unemployment, corruption, and the political class. Trust in Spanish politicians rests alarmingly low: According to the latest polls less than 30 percent of Spanish citizens have any trust in their politicians.
Changing Spain’s constitutional system is an attractive option to those feeling increasingly disconnected from the political process. The nostalgic view of the second Spanish republic, crushed by Franco’s dictatorship, is still a powerful idea in contemporary Spain, as the republican flags seen in the recent demonstrations indicate. The younger generations are more likely to distrust politicians, and they have also been hit the hardest by unemployment. The recent surge in support for Podemos, a new political party overtly opposed to the two traditional parties, reflects the younger voters’ increasing rejection of the political elites. The monarchy, an institution that younger Spaniards have grown up with, is mainly seen as part of this elite.
As a young Spanish student I sympathize with my generation’s desire for a better Spain. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a constitutional change leading to a republican form of government will not change the harsh reality that Spain faces today. Chronic corruption and unemployment will persist under a monarchical or republican Spain. There are many referendums that could actively improve the quality of Spain’s democracy in this point in time, for example a referendum proposing to reform the way parties are legislated to guarantee a more internal democratic procedure, or the reform of the electoral law which currently privileges the two main political parties. The question of whether Spain should be a monarchy or a republic is an ideological question that will need to be talked about at some point, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from the reforms that Spain sorely needs today.