Spanish Royal Family No Longer Safe From Public Scrutiny

King Juan Carlos of Spain (C) receives new ambassadors at the Royal Palace on February 6, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

King Juan Carlos of Spain (C) receives new ambassadors at the Royal Palace on February 6, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

Long gone are the days when the Spanish royal family was treated with deference by the public, politicians and, most importantly, the media.

Instead, both journalists and politicians are digging deeper into every aspect of the family’s personal and financial life with nearly everything seen as fair game.

“The protective shield of the royal family has simply disappeared,” Carmen Enríquez, an expert on the Spanish royal family, explained to The New York Times.

“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.”

As José Antonio Zarzalejos, a former editor in chief of the conservative newspaper ABC and political columnist, explained to the Times, in the past “the media consented not to publish some things.”

“That wasn’t driven by fear, but instead by respect and gratefulness.”

But now, things have changed.

With the country in the midst of an economic downfall, 75-year-old King Juan Carlos is increasingly unpopular. And as his health continues to decline, calls have intensified for the King to abdicate the throne in favor of his 45-year-old son Prince Felipe.

“The king is clearly not in perfect health, and has made many errors, so he doesn’t have the capacity to lead that his son does,” said Zarzalejos.

On Sunday thousands of people demonstrated against the Spanish monarchy, demanding the return of a democratically elected head of state.

The marchers thronged Puerta del Sol, a central square in the capital of Madrid, on the 82nd anniversary of the establishment of Spain's last democratically-elected republic, which was overthrown by an army uprising that led to a civil war and the 36-year military dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

Franco appointed then Prince Juan Carlos as his successor as head of state, a job the royal took over as king upon the dictator's death in 1975.

"This monarchy was imposed on us by the dictatorship, therefore we consider it to be illegal," 45-year-old teacher Maria Ayuso said. "Also, we consider it anachronistic to have a non-elected head of state; it's not democratic."

For decades, the king was largely admired for having shepherded Spain from dictatorship to a modern democracy — many cite his role in adroitly getting the participants in an attempted military coup in February 1981 to stand down peacefully as a highlight in his career.

But things began to go awry when he broke his hip while on a previously unannounced elephant hunting trip in Botswana, even though it was widely known he was president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund. The king had to be flown back to Spain aboard a private jet for hospital treatment.

In an unprecedented act of royal contrition, Juan Carlos apologized, saying as he left the hospital: "I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It won't happen again."

Matters got worse when the king's daughter, Princess Cristina, was named as an official suspect in an alleged plot to embezzle public money.

The investigation centers on whether the 47-year-old princess' husband, Iñaki Urdangarín, and his former business partner took advantage –with her knowledge– of their royal connections to funnel about 5 million euros ($6.4 million) in public funds, using companies and an allegedly non-profit institute they ran.

Neither Cristina nor Urdangarín have been charged, but both have been called to testify before an investigating magistrate.

When speaking to the Times, a spokesman for the royal household said he was well aware of the fall in the family’s popularity. With the spokesman highlighting the palace’s efforts to make the royal household more transparent, the royals are not alone when it comes to tough public scrutiny.

Almost every institution of power and political party in the country has been touched by corruption and popular disillusionment, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was recently accused of operating a slush fund. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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