Parallels
3:11 pm
Thu June 19, 2014

New King Ascends Spanish Throne, With Hopes For A New Era

Originally published on Thu June 19, 2014 7:12 pm

As police helicopters hovered overhead, Spain's new king rolled up to Parliament in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce.

Felipe VI saluted Spanish troops lined up outside, as the country's national anthem blasted from speakers. He wore a navy blue military uniform and a red sash, representing the highest rank in Spain's armed forces. It had been bestowed upon him an hour earlier, by his father.

He ducked inside Parliament, took an oath and was proclaimed king. It was the first-ever royal handover in Spain's democratic era.

The 46-year-old Felipe is a fresh face for Spain's monarchy, beset by recent scandals. One of the princesses is accused of embezzling public money. The outgoing king, Juan Carlos, has a 38 percent approval rating, in part because of a rather expensive elephant hunting trip he took to Africa two years ago, while Spain was mired in recession. One in four Spaniards is still out of work.

Felipe will have to deal with a wounded Spanish economy, regions that want to break away from Madrid's control and dwindling support for the Spanish monarchy itself.

"Long live the king! Long live Spain!" lawmakers shouted during Thursday's special joint session of Parliament.

Despite that pomp, the ceremony was relatively no-frills. No foreign royals nor heads of state were invited. No golden crown was placed on the new monarch's head.

Felipe's mother, Queen Sofia, beamed from a parliamentary balcony. But his father and one sister were not present for that part of the ceremony.

"A renovated monarchy for a new age. I'll work with energy, hope and an open spirit," Felipe promised, visibly emotional, his voice cracking several times. "There is room for all of us in a united and diverse Spain."

He ended his speech by saying 'thank you' in Spain's four official languages: Castilian Spanish, Basque, Catalan and Galician.

The presidents of Catalonia and the Basque Country — both autonomous regions inside Spain that are lobbying for independence — attended the king's speech Thursday but refused to applaud, according to Spanish media.

Felipe is a former Olympic sailor, educated at Georgetown University in Washington. He's more popular than his father. But polls show roughly half of Spaniards don't want the monarchy anymore.

Protesters have filled Spanish squares in recent weeks, calling for a referendum on the royal system. But demonstrations were banned Thursday in Madrid. A few brave souls in anti-monarchy T-shirts were arrested.

At a royal parade that followed the parliamentary ceremony, Felipe and his wife, Queen Letizia, waved to supporters from a convertible Rolls-Royce. Later they waved to supporters from a balcony of the Royal Palace, with their two young daughters and the king's parents.

Along the parade route, which wound down Madrid's wide Gran Vía, lined with police, many royal spectators talked quite openly about their ambivalence.

"I'm not against the monarchy, but I think it's a bit outdated. Plus, their behavior hasn't been great," said Javier Gutierrez, a 31-year-old who works in marketing. "So lots of people are against them. They sell us this image of the king saving democracy, but that was decades ago. We needed a fresh face — though there's a limit to what he can do."

Experts say the Spanish royal family is keenly aware of its dwindling popularity. That's believed to have influenced King Juan Carlos' decision to step down.

"The timing of King Juan Carlos' abdication is an effort to rejuvenate the Spanish monarchy before it's too late — before the reputation is tarnished beyond a point of no return," says Hamilton Stapell, a professor of modern Spanish history at the State University of New York, New Paltz. "So this change allows Spaniards to say, 'Hey, maybe we can have a different future. Maybe things can be better.' "

Spain's economy is hobbling out of recession. But the country's national soccer team suffered two surprise defeats and was eliminated from the World Cup on Wednesday night.

Spaniards will be replaced as the world champions of soccer, but they have a new king. It's a new era for Spain, in more ways than one.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Felipe VI was sworn in today in Madrid, a new king for Spain. He is a fresh face for a monarchy which has been beset by scandals. And the 46-year-old is taking on some daunting challenges - a wounded economy, Spanish regions that want to break away and dwindling support for the monarchy itself. Lauren Frayer has this report from Madrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: As police helicopters hovered overhead, Felipe VI rolled up to Parliament in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPANISH NATIONAL ANTHEM)

FRAYER: He saluted Spanish troops lined up outside, took an oath and was proclaimed king.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

CROWD: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoke).

CROWD: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: Long live the king. Long live Spain, lawmakers shouted. It was the first royal handover in Spain's democratic era. Despite that pomp, it was relatively no-frills. No foreign royals nor heads of state were invited, no golden crown on the monarch's head. The new king's mother beamed from the balcony, but his father and sister weren't even there. She's under investigation for alleged money laundering. He, the outgoing king, Juan Carlos, has never been less popular, ever since that luxury elephant hunt he went on two years ago with 1 in 4 Spaniards unemployed.

FELIPE VI: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: A renovated monarchy for a new age. I'll work with energy, hope and an open spirit, Felipe promised. There is room for all of us in a united and diverse Spain. He ended his speech by saying thank you in Spain's four official languages - Castilian Spanish, Basque, Catalan and Galician. The new king is a former Olympic sailor, educated at Georgetown University in the U.S. He's more popular than his father, but polls show roughly half of Spaniards don't want any monarch anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

PROTESTERS: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: Protesters have filled Spanish squares in recent weeks, calling for a referendum on the royal system, but demonstrations were banned today in Madrid. A few brave souls in anti-monarchy T-shirts were arrested. At the royal parade, a few old ladies did swoon, but many others talked quite openly about their ambivalence.

JAVIER GUTIERREZ: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: I'm not against the monarchy, but I think it's a bit outdated. Plus, their behavior hasn't been great, said Javier Gutierrez, a 31-year-old who works in marketing. So lots of people are against them. They sell us this image of the king saving democracy, but that was decades ago, he said. We needed a fresh face, though there's a limit to what he can do.

Hamilton Stapell is a Spain expert at the State University of New York. He says that the Spanish royal family is keenly aware of its dwindling popularity and decided to take action.

HAMILTON STAPELL: The timing of King Juan Carlos's abdication, it's an effort to rejuvenate the Spanish monarchy before it's too late, before the reputation is tarnished beyond a point of no return. So this change allows Spaniards to say, hey, maybe we can have a different future. Maybe things can be better.

FRAYER: Spain's economy is hobbling out of recession, but the country's national soccer team was eliminated from the World Cup last night. No longer world champions and with a new king, Spain is entering a new era in more ways than one. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.