MADRID (Reuters) - Hunting was once standard practice for European kings, but in crisis-era Spain, with unprecedented public debt and a quarter of his subjects unemployed, Juan Carlos I finds his privileges in the firing line after a big-game jaunt to Africa.
As the government struggles to control the national deficit and avert an international bailout, the 74-year-old king, once widely revered for his role in Spain’s transition to democracy, apologized last week for the expensive elephant hunting trip in Botswana.
He had previously given speeches saying he lost sleep over the problem of youth unemployment - sky high at about 50 percent - and that politicians should lead by example in times of austerity.
The trip, though paid for by a businessman friend, was the final straw for recession-weary Spaniards already disgusted by allegations the king’s son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin had abused his position to embezzle money through a sports charity.
The royal household was also embarrassed earlier this month when the king’s 13-year-old grandson Felipe Juan Froilan, son of the Infanta Elena, literally shot himself in the foot while using a gun below the legal age.
The incidents have sparked unprecedented criticism of the royals in a country where the press has traditionally treated the House of Bourbon with kid gloves, avoiding British-style reporting on their private lives, even when foreign magazines have run stories on the king’s alleged lovers.
Left-wing party Izquierda Unida, which includes communists, renewed calls for Spain to become a republic, and the leader of the Madrid Socialists, Tomas Gomez, said Juan Carlos should think about handing over to his son Felipe.
“Nobody had ever before talked about abdication before,” said Charles Powell, a history professor at CEU-San Pablo University in Madrid. “The demand for accountability has never existed before on this scale.”
“We want the same as in any constitutional monarchy. The king should respond to the people and, if necessary, the constitution must be changed,” aid Alfred Bosch, member of parliament from the small leftist party Esquerra Republicana.
In response to the unfolding Urdangarin scandal, the royal household recently disclosed details of its income for the first time.
But opposition groups in Congress are pressing for the king to divulge more information about his activities under a new transparency law that widens public access to government information.
“If it doesn’t include the head of state, the transparency law is not a transparency law. That must be clear. A transparency law with opaque zones is antitransparent. We have to outline more precisely what is private for the head of state and what is public. Up until now, everything is private. We’ve got to end that,” said congressman Carlos Martinez Gorriaran of the centre-right UPyD party.
Opposition groups in Congress are also pressing the government for more information about the trip, including how much the state paid for the king’s security detail. The government has a month to respond.
The Botswana trip only became public when the king was flown home for a hip operation after injuring himself in a fall. The royal household said it informed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the trip, but the government has declined to say how much it knew about it.
The monarch’s accident fast became the talk of social networks such as Twitter, where he was branded a hypocrite and out of touch with a society traumatized by the financial crisis.
“They live off of our taxes; they should be more transparent,” said Darwin Hernandez, 29, a sales manager who wants the monarchy to continue, but give a lot more information about its activities.
Professor Powell thinks legislation may be needed to clarify issues such as the monarch’s relations with the prime minister, who writes his speeches, and what happens if the king is too sick to perform duties as head of state.
In a poll published by right-leaning newspaper El Mundo at the weekend, 65.3 percent of those polled said the royal household had not released enough information about how the king’s accident happened.
Some 52.8 percent said they did not think the king’s apology could repair the damage done to the crown by his trip.
Older Spaniards are generally grateful to the king for cementing the country’s democracy in its early, fragile days. Right-wing dictator Francisco Franco named Juan Carlos as his successor, but the young monarch helped pave the way for a constitutional monarchy after Franco’s death in 1975.
When right-wing military officers mounted a coup in February 1981, the king made a television broadcast defending the democracy, which even won him respect from staunch Republicans such as Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo.
Until Urdangarin, the Duke of Palma, came under investigation for corruption and fraud, Spain’s royal family was highly popular.
The family got a boost when the heir to the throne, Prince Felipe, married popular television news reader Letizia Ortiz at a ceremony watched by millions.
“The king’s family liked hunting, he hunts and his sons will hunt ... That is not a reason for people to ask for a republic,” said Enrique Hernando, 66, a retired engineer.
“We are okay with the king, and his heir also seems to know how to do the job.”
In October, Juan Carlos’s approval rating fell below 5 out of 10 in a state-sponsored poll for the first time ever. However, few analysts think the king’s fall in popularity will lead to a demand for a republic, since the two main political parties both back the monarchy.
“People are questioning whether Felipe might do a better job, but they are not questioning the institution,” said Powell.
“The monarchy can probably take heart from that. People want the monarchy to be more in tune with the public.”
But if the monarchy does not respond to that call, it can only add to the ranks of people like Martin Sagrera, a political science writer in his 70s, who waited outside the hospital for Juan Carlos to be discharged with a placard reading, “King, resign!”
Wearing a cap with the Spanish flag on it, Sagrera said it was time to abolish the monarchy. “In a democracy, everyone has the same rights and there is no ‘blue’ blood,” he said. “It was understandable in the Transition, in the early days of the democracy, but today it’s out of context.”
Additional reporting by Marco Trujillo and Edgar Aribau; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Will Waterman