Spain Crises Offer Felipe VI Chance to Match His Father

During a lifetime of preparation for the job he begins today, Felipe de Borbon and those guiding him along the path to the Spanish crown faced a classic royal dilemma: how to live up to his father.

The challenge for Felipe, 46, who was sworn in as king at the National Parliament in Madrid, is matching Juan Carlos’s epoch-making precedent. As king, Juan Carlos demonstrated his merit as a world leader steering the isolated Spain of the dictatorship into the European Union, NATO and constitutional democracy, facing down a military coup along the way.

Spain’s six-year slump offers his son and heir a chance to make his own mark. Following Juan Carlos’s abdication this month, Felipe VI inherits a country facing multi-dimensional crises in its economy, its political parties and its state institutions that stretch deep into Spanish society, irrespective of the sugar rush of central bank stimulus that brought 10-year borrowing costs to a record low 2.54 percent this month.

“There is a clear sense that business as usual is no longer an option,” Charles Powell, director of the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, a government-funded foreign-policy research body where Felipe chairs regular meetings as chairman of the board, said in an interview.

The monarchy hasn’t escaped the ire of Spaniards’ disillusion with their leaders. Support for the institution fell to 50 percent in a Sigma Dos poll in January; 62 percent said Juan Carlos should abdicate after his reputation was hurt by an elephant hunt, reports of an affair and corruption allegations against his son-in-law.

Role Model

“Felipe has to set an example at a time when that’s what is missing in politics,” Belen Barreiro, director of the research department of the Fundacion Alternativas think tank, said in an interview. “People see him as much more of a role model than his father. And that is what Spain needs right now.”

Felipe was born in 1968, between the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and the first moon landing. Spain then was a million miles from both, a military dictatorship under one of Europe’s last fascist rulers, Francisco Franco. A year later, his father was made heir to the throne.

For most of Felipe’s life, Spain surged forward on the foundations his father had laid during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Output per head in 1980 was about $7,300, on a par with Algeria today, according to an International Monetary Fund gauge that strips out the effects of currency fluctuations. Now it’s more than four times as high.

Soccer, Restaurants

Juan Carlos’s prestige among Spaniards was sealed in 1981 when he appeared on television to order troops to uphold the constitution after soldiers stormed the parliament in Madrid in an attempted coup.

In the years that followed, democratic Spain left behind the Franco-era monoculture and unleashed a cacophony of competing voices in its four official languages that gave rise at different times to the world’s best tennis player and No. 1 golfer, the best restaurants and two best soccer teams, as well as pioneers in cinema, music and literature.

When the housing bubble burst in 2008, cracks opened in the political settlement that Juan Carlos had helped broker during the transition.

Corruption Claims

Separatist sentiment surged in Catalonia, the biggest regional economy, while the political appointees at some failing savings banks awarded themselves million-dollar payoffs as their institutions collapsed. Socialist leaders in Andalusia are facing a graft investigation, and Felipe’s sister Cristina and her husband Inaki Urdangarin are suspected of fraud.

The former treasurer of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party told a court he’d been making cash payments to party officials, including the premier, from a secret party slush fund for over a decade. Rajoy has denied any personal wrongdoing and pleaded ignorance of what went on in the party.

Spain’s boom “was based on the purest nothing, on cheap credit and political corruption and the construction of houses,” novelist Antonio Munoz Molina said in an extended essay published last year on the crisis in Spanish public life entitled “All That Was Solid.”

Four months later, Felipe’s Prince of Asturias Foundation awarded Munoz Molina its annual prize for literature. In his speech at the prize-giving ceremony in October, Felipe offered a response to the criticism.

Moral Leadership

The 1978 constitution gives the king responsibility for “arbitrating and moderating” the work of state institutions. Beyond that, the throne gives Felipe at least an opportunity to establish his moral leadership, a public good that has been in short supply in his country.

“The crown must be close to the people, know how to win their respect and confidence” and “conduct itself with integrity, honesty, transparency,” Felipe said in Parliament today. “Only in that way will it create the moral authority necessary to carry out its functions.”

In his speech, he talked about the need to improve the quality of Spanish democracy, revitalize state institutions and build understanding between the country’s different cultural traditions.

“The big question is whether the politicians will follow him,” said Powell.

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