Felipe boosts scan­dal-hit crown in Spain’s chang­ing land­scape


King Felipe VI of Spain has strength­ened the stand­ing of Spain’s monar­chy in his first year as king, sur­pris­ing the coun­try by squar­ing up to scan­dal — but its fu­ture re­mains un­cer­tain as a fresh po­lit­i­cal gen­er­a­tion comes of age.

With new protest par­ties carv­ing up the vote ahead of a gen­eral elec­tion due by the end of this year, royal-watch­ers say the 47-year old king is re­tun­ing the role of the monar­chy.

He took the coun­try by sur­prise last week when he faced his fam­ily’s big­gest scan­dal head-on, strip­ping the ti­tle Duchess of Palma from his sis­ter Cristina, who has been called to stand trial for al­leged tax eva­sion.

Spa­niards’ sup­port for Spain’s sys­tem of con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy has risen to 61.5 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by poll­ster Sigma Dos.

The poll was taken be­fore the an­nounce­ment about Cristina, and pub­lished in cen­ter-right news­pa­per El Mundo on Mon­day.

The score was higher than the 60 per­cent ap­proval level reached by Juan Car­los at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity, which was driven down later by scan­dals.

Hav­ing launched a new palace code of con­duct last year and pub­lished de­tails of its spend­ing, Felipe has also reached out to or­di­nary Spa­niards and civil so­ci­ety.

“He knows that a monar­chy has to be run in the street, in touch with peo­ple and real life,” Ce­sar de la Lama, a bi­og­ra­pher of the cur­rent king’s fa­ther.

In his first year Felipe has granted about 100 au­di­ences, in­clud­ing to var­i­ous non-gov­ern­men­tal move­ments such as gay rights’ groups.

“He has aimed his mes­sage much more at so­cial groups, at the per­son in the street, than at the es­tab­lish­ment,” said royal spe­cial­ist au­thor Fer­min Ur­biola.

‘Im­prov­ing democ­racy’

A frail, tear­ful Juan Car­los gave up the crown in a cer­e­mony at the palace on June 19 last year, hop­ing his heir would save the monar­chy’s im­age.

Juan Car­los had out­raged Spa­niards in 2012 by go­ing ele­phant hunt­ing in Botswana at the height of Spain’s re­ces­sion. Sep­a­rately, Cristina was ac­cused in a cor­rup­tion probe tar­get­ing her hus­band.

The han­dover “caused a cer­tain con­cern,” but “it went ahead with­out prob­lems and the monar­chy’s ap­proval rat­ing has im­proved greatly,” said Jose Apezarena, au­thor of sev­eral books about Felipe.

At the same time how­ever, Span­ish pol­i­tics has changed rapidly, mak­ing the com­ing gen­eral elec­tion the most un­pre­dictable in decades.

Two ma­jor new op­po­si­tion par­ties, the left-wing Pode­mos and cen­ter­right Ci­u­dadanos, are strong con­tenders, hav­ing gained a large share of the vote in re­gional elec­tions last month against Spain’s two old, es­tab­lished par­ties.

With lead­ers in their 30s, they rep­re­sent a new gen­er­a­tion of politi­cians born since Spain’s tran­si­tion to par­lia­men­tary democ­racy in the 1970s.

Juan Car­los, 77, is widely cred­ited with aid­ing that tran­si­tion. But the new forces are skep­ti­cal about the monar­chy. Pode­mos leader Pablo Igle­sias has pro­posed hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum on abol­ish­ing it.

How­ever more than 53 per­cent of re­spon­dents who iden­ti­fied them­selves as Pode­mos vot­ers said they had a good opin­ion of the king, in the poll pub­lished Mon­day.

“Spa­niards have iden­ti­fied Felipe’s fa­ther with the com­ing of democ­racy,” said jour­nal­ist Ana Romero, another royal spe­cial­ist.

“I think Felipe VI should get the new gen­er­a­tion of Spa­niards to iden­tify him with im­prov­ing democ­racy.”

In another study by the state polling in­sti­tute CIS, the crown’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ing has ticked up to 4.3 points out of 10 from 3.7 a year ago.

That rat­ing is still be­low the lev­els reached by the once-pop­u­lar Juan Car­los be­fore the scan­dals started in 2011, how­ever.

“The monar­chy as an in­sti­tu­tion has not yet re­gained the level of ap­proval that it had for all those years,” said Romero.

“When the new Spain that emerges from the bal­lot boxes takes shape, we will see how Felipe VI fares,” she said. “He still has work to do.”

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