Donal Lynch: Spain and the game of thrones
Discontent over austerity on the streets of Madrid and Barcelona has turned towards a royal family mired in claims of embezzlement, corruption and profligacy. At one stage it even seemed that a princess could end up in jail. Donal Lynch reports on a monarchy that suddenly seems in peril
Published 18/11/2013 | 01:00
OVER the last few years Spain, like Ireland, has been convulsed by its share of political and financial scandals. Earlier this year, the former treasurer of the country's ruling party was indicted over €22m he is alleged to have squirelled away in Swiss bank accounts. Recently, the head of the country's Supreme Court resigned in disgrace after it was alleged he misused public funds. These were the most famous of some 2,000 cases involving allegations of embezzlement, fraud, kickbacks and secret dealings by high-level officials that have churned their way through the courts since the euro crisis began five years ago and devastated the country. From Barcelona to Bilbao, nearly every public institution has been touched by allegations of corruption.
And yet these outrages seem like mere footnotes to a larger and more destabilising soap opera, one that at one point threatened to land a princess in prison and still portends the toppling of the country's royal family. The Queen of England famously described 1992 – when Windsor castle was destroyed by fire and the Duke and Duchess of York separated – as her "annus horribilus", but the phrase has yet to be coined to sum up the relentless and rolling PR disaster that has engulfed the Spanish royals. After years of unmitigated adoration, the first family for the first time had to read jokes about beheadings, allegations of royal affairs and questions about what exactly their purpose is.
Every week has brought a new mini crisis. The satirical magazine Mongolia recently published the latest in a series of emails that have emerged from the royal household. In them the king's son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, makes coarse, sexist comments and jokes at the expense of his family. He suggests his sister-in-law, Letizia, who is married to the next in line to the throne, Crown Prince Felipe, is having a "royal orgasm" and jokes that an ironing board was the female equivalent of a computer. In another email he says he is considering going to work for the UN refugee agency and attaches a picture of the "people he will be working with". The picture shows a group of semi-naked women.
Urdangarin has been portrayed as something of an interloper, but when he first emerged on the scene he was a popular and handsome addition to the family. He met King Juan Carlos' daughter, the Infanta Cristina, at the 1996 Summer Olympics, in Atlanta, where he was competing as a member of the Spanish handball team. They married in 1997 and had four children over the next eight years.
The son of a wealthy Basque businessman and a Belgian mother, Urdangarin grew up in Barcelona, where he and Cristina settled after their marriage. Urdangarin was once held up as the Kate Middleton of the Spanish aristocracy – a commoner and breath of fresh air who would lead the Spanish royals into the 21st Century. Instead he has proved to be the catalyst for a series of events, which have exposed the family to calls for an abdication. Earlier this month, a judge confiscated a palace and various other villas he owns with his wife, the king's youngest daughter. The assets are to be held as bail in an investigation into allegations that Urdangarin leveraged his royal connections to embezzle €6m of public money. The princess was initially named as a suspect and subpoenaed to testify in an investigation of fraud and embezzlement centring on her husband, but the decision was reversed by a judge on appeal. Her tax affairs were also probed. The allegation was that Infanta Cristina may have been aware that funds coming into a particular company – of which she had a 50 per cent stake – may have resulted from the alleged embezzlement of which her husband is accused.
She was eventually cleared by the national tax agency, but it also alleged that her husband had "without a doubt" profited illegally from transactions between his companies.
Urdangarin, who had been given the title Duque de Palma de Mallorca upon marrying Cristina, denies all charges against him. Nevertheless, the royal household announced that he would not participate in official family functions while under investigation, and all trace of him was removed from the royal family's official website. The royal family have denied, however, that they have asked Cristina to divorce him.
But even this did not come close to quelling the festering resentment of the royal lifestyle. Spain's socialist party soon demanded the most detailed account yet of the royal household's finances. Late last year, it was shown that the King had received close to €350,000 from the State and also that he paid the highest rate of income tax on his salary. The total budget for the royal household, including a staff of about 500, was approximately €10m, a relatively low sum compared with other European monarchies. Yet, to put it in PR speak, the "optics" were still bad. Many observers questioned how Juan Carlos, on such a relatively modest income (by comparison with other royal families) could have created a personal fortune of nearly €2bn. By the time these questions were being asked, the lifestyle of the royal family had come under considerably more scrutiny in the aftermath of a trip to Africa, which the king took last year. The king took a fall off an elephant while on safari and had to be rushed back to Spain for an operation. Juan Carlos, who guided Spain out of the post-Franco period, was taken aback at the outrage that followed. One newspaper calculated that the trip had cost more per person than the average yearly salary in Spain, which has suffered more through the euro crisis than any country other than Greece.
Overnight, Juan Carlos was transformed from the country's beloved patriarch into a Marie Antoinette caricature. After he emerged from hospital, almost every Spanish media outlet ran photos of him taken on an earlier safari in Africa, showing him standing beside an elephant, which he had killed. To add to the controversy, four days before the King's fall, his 13-year-old grandson – the son of his older daughter, the Infanta Elena – had shot himself in the foot during hunting practice on land surrounding one of the royal family's country houses, and police were looking into whether this had been criminal. Spanish media took this as the starting point for another slew of pieces looking back at a family tragedy that had occurred half a century before, when Juan Carlos, then 18, accidentally shot and killed his own 14-year-old brother, Alfonso. The accident was said to have mentally scarred the monarch for life.
But the safari scandal had even more meat on its bones. In the days after the King made his apology, it emerged that his hunting party had included one Princess Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a beautiful, 46-year-old, twice-divorced German businesswoman based in Monaco, and that she had flown with him on the private plane of Mohamed Eyad Kayali, a fabulously wealthy Arab deal-maker, who paid for the whole trip. Meanwhile, back home news reports contrasted the King's trip with the long unemployment lines and young families squatting in buildings on the outskirts of Madrid. The coverage was like petrol to the flames of public discontent.
The calls for the King to step down in favour of his son, Crown Prince Felipe, began the following weekend, when the Socialist Party leader told the press: "The moment has arrived for the head of state to decide between his obligations and public responsibilities and an abdication that would allow him to enjoy a different life." His suggestion started a public conversation about the future of the royals in Spain. A few days later came another bombshell. Leaving the hospital on crutches, Juan Carlos addressed the waiting journalists and TV crews with a statement about the ill-timed safari. "I am very sorry," he said. "I made a mistake. It won't happen again." For a man who had lived by the maxim never complain, never explain, it was an extraordinary admission.
In the spring, the main Socialist opposition party took steps in Parliament that, for the first time, formally demanded information about the King's personal finances. The demand 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 protective shield of the royal family has simply disappeared," wrote Carmen Enríquez, who has written a book about the royal family and who served as the royal correspondent for Spain's national television network for 18 years. "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."
Compounding matters for the King were the suggestions that his marriage may be in trouble. Although Sayn-Wittgenstein denied any "improper relationship" with the King – and pointed out that her first husband and son were also on the trip – she did admit that they had become "close friends". She further confided that she had performed "sensitive and confidential" assignments for the Spanish Government, adding: "These were specific classified matters and I helped for the good of the country." The whole implication was that Juan Carlos considered Spain his own little fiefdom.
It was reported that Queen Sofía, who had flown to Athens on the Friday, to spend Greek Orthodox Easter with her brother, Constantine, (the former king of Greece) was informed of her husband's fall upon her arrival there, and decided to stick to her plan to return to Madrid on the Monday. Given the crisis the Spanish royals found themselves embroiled in, it seemed a strange decision to many, and created the impression that there had indeed been some discord in the royal household, which also recently confirmed that the King and Queen will not be publicly celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.
In a recently published book, entitled The Solitude Of The Queen, Spanish author Pilar Eyre alleged that Juan Carlos had in fact multiple affairs and that he had once even made a pass at Princess Diana while she and Prince Charles were holidaying on King Constantine's yacht. Barely a month after the monarch's apology for the African safari, Spanish Vanity Fair responded by putting Sayn-Wittgenstein on the June 2012 cover as "The Mysterious Friend of the King". Lourdes Garzon, the editor-in-chief, told the magazine's American counterpart that it was difficult to write about Sayn-Wittgenstein because of the deference which accompanied reports on the royal family. It's been reported that the Queen is eager to see her son, Prince Felipe, take over from his father sooner rather than later.
And yet, while Felipe enjoys greater popularity than other family members, his wife, Letizia, has also been a lightning rod for controversy. A book by her cousin, David Rocasolano, made headlines in April with its salacious claim that she had had a secret abortion before she met Felipe. Her friends have adamantly denied this is the truth, but there have been further suggestions that there is friction between her and Urdangarin, who made the spiteful jokes about her in his emails. According to another book published earlier this year, Urdangarin, A Hustler In The Court Of The King, Letizia's embattled brother-in-law blames his current woes on her. Authors Eduardo Inda and Esteban Urreiztieta claimed that Urdangarin and Cristina "resented that they were treated differently at the palace in comparison" with Felipe and Letizia, and that Letizia leaked documents that would make Urdangarin look bad. Royal observers noted the crucial difference, from a PR perspective, is that neither Felipe nor Letizia has ever been linked to any kind of corruption.
Thousands of people demonstrated against the monarchy in central Madrid in April, 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. The protests underlined the breadth and intensity of the criticism being levelled against the royal family. According to a recent poll by the Centre for Sociological Research, 41 per cent of Spaniards no longer support the once-revered Spanish royals. Increasing numbers of prominent politicians, as well as the media, have spoken out on the future of the monarchy, a topic that was largely taboo for decades.
In response, the royal family tried to make cutbacks, but even these have backfired. In the summer, the palace announced that the King, "for austerity reasons," was going to turn over to the Government his €24m yacht, Fortuna. There was only one hitch: the conglomerate of Spanish business people who had given the King the boat a decade ago to replace a previous yacht given to him by the late Saudi King Fahd, wanted it back. In addition, many Spaniards had not even been aware of the yacht and the attempted disposal seemed to bring greater attention to the kind of lifestyle the king has enjoyed, while his people suffer.
Urdangarin's case continues to move toward its conclusion, with all of the fallout that may bring for his in-laws. The outcome will be eagerly awaited by the two largest national political parties in Madrid, the conservative Popular Party and the centre-left Socialist Party. They are in favour of keeping the royal family and the royals have received international support in Spain's time of need. Bill Clinton has written: "This is the King's decision. We have been friends for more than two decades. I believe that he will do what he thinks is best for the people of Spain and that, whatever he does, he will find a way to be of public service. I also know that his son is able, patriotic, and has been well prepared by his parents."
Still, in Spain the anti-monarchy feeling simmers, the anti-austerity protests continue on the streets of Barcelona and Madrid and, as in 1981 when Juan Carlos himself played a critical role in preventing a coup, there may be a crisis in Spanish democracy. The only difference is that this time nobody seems sure who will take the lead.