El Scandal

Could The Spanish Royal Family Fall?

Engulfed by scandal, the Spanish royal family is teetering on the brink of extinction

Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images

The king is sick, his female friend has fled the country, the press are asking questions, his staff are on strike and now his youngest daughter has been summoned to appear in court. Could the Spanish monarchy be the first royal house of the twenty-first century to fall?Almost exactly a year ago, King Juan Carlos of Spain gave a speech in which he claimed that the plight of the unemployed – who currently make up 26% of the Spanish population – kept him awake at night.

It was just the kind of unifying speech that Carlos had perfected over his many decades in power since the Spanish monarchy was reinstated by the fascist dictator Franco. Franco saw an ally in Juan Carlos, and declared that after his death (which came in 1975) the King would take over from him and continue his autocratic rule, but Franco was posthumously double-crossed by Franco, and in 1977 the King voluntarily gave up his role of absolute monarch and oversaw Spain’s transition to a modern, multi-party democracy. In 1981, Juan Carlos was the focal point of resistance to an attempted military coup.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that for many years the Spanish have adored King Juan Carlos and been wiling to overlook the infidelities and improprieties of the Royals, and the estimated ten million euro a year they cost the state.

The Spanish press have traditionally chosen to play along, not reporting too extensively on his playboy lifestyle or his extra-marital affairs (two attempts by people claiming to be his illegitimate offspring to prove their paternity have been thrown out on the basis of the king's legal "inviolability".)

But then, disaster struck. It leaked out that emergency hip surgery which had to be carried out a few weeks after the speech about unemployment was to treat an injury sustained during a hunting safari in Botswana, where, almost incredibly, the King was actually shooting wild elephants.

The Spaniards are not famed for their animal-friendly attitudes, but still, the news that the King was shooting elephants in southern Africa while claiming insomnia caused by worrying about the unemployed was hard for the man on the street to stomach.

The King apologized, saying, "I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It will not happen again."

It was an unprecedented act but it was too little too late. Smelling blood, the press homed in on the story and started to ask questions about his relationship with ‘Princess’ Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a blonde 49-year-old German (she claims the title of Princess, dubiously, from a former marriage to a German nobleman) who had been traveling with him.

Corinna was swiftly cast as his mistress, and, as the Spanish press belatedly began reporting on the extent of the relationship, it emerged that Corinna, who was set up in an apartment near Zarzuela palace in Madrid, had frequently accompanied the King on foreign trips over the preceding nine years while the saintly Queen Sofia was left behind.

Now even Corinna has had enough and left the King’s side. "I won't return to Spain as long as my presence there causes controversy," she said in a recent interview with Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo.

Two weeks ago the king was once again in hospital for an operation on a slipped disc, but when he came out he had to face yet another indignity: his personal staff were on strike, in protest at austerity measures imposed by the conservative government.

The stoppage was observed by 140 union members, according to the Daily Telegraph including gardeners, waiters, cooks and valets. Such an action would have been inconceivable even eighteen months ago.

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Now, things are going from really bad to even worse for the Spanish royal family with the news that Juan Carlos’s youngest daughter, Cristina, has been summoned to appear in court over allegations that her husband diverted millions of euros of public money to his own pocket.

Her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, who was made Duke of Palma by the King when he married his daughter, denies wrongdoing. He has been ordered to post millions of euro worth of bail but has not been charged.

He is suspected of having massively overcharged local authorities for organising sporting events.

Princess Cristina has been asked to appear in court in Palma de Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands, on 27 April.

Emails have come to light suggesting that the princess knew about her husband's financial affairs, the Spanish El Pais newspaper reported.

The court also has e-mails linking Urdangarin with the king's friend, Corinna, who has given three major interviews in recent weeks in which she casually mentioned not only that she had tried to find Urdangarin a job, but also that she had performed "sensitive and confidential" assignments for the Spanish government, because of her “good connections”.

Support for the monarchy in Spain has now fallen to a historic low of 54 per cent, according to a poll published in January, but earlier this month another poll showed 85.9 per cent of Spaniards would welcome the King abdicating in favour of his son.

Pere Navarro, head of the Catalan socialist party, said: "We need a new head of state."

But Carme Chacón, a potential future socialist candidate for prime minister, went even further. According to a report in the Guardian he said: "From now on either the monarchy is transparent, or it may stop existing."

As inquiries proceed into the King's son-in-law, and the Spanish press starts to exhume even more long-buried stories about the royals, that latter option is strting to look increasingly attractive to many hard-pressed Spaniards.