MADRID – Losing popularity and besieged by a corruption scandal that has reached all the way to the palace itself, Spain’s royals are looking to the dashing heir to the throne, Prince Felipe, to save their image.
At the age 75, King Juan Carlos shows no sign of abdicating, as his contemporary Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has done — but he said in a recent interview that Felipe was “well prepared” to take over when the time comes.
The palace spent last year turning Felipe, who turned 45 years old on Wednesday, into its most visible public representative.
He had more official engagements than any other member of the royal family in 2012, while Juan Carlos recovered from operations to replace both hips — one due to a fall during a luxury elephant-hunting safari in Botswana, for which he apologized to the nation.
A typical item on Prince Felipe’s diary of official engagements, he spent part of his 45th birthday on Wednesday charming the crowds as he inaugurated a tourism fair in Madrid.
In line with the palace’s new recession-era regimen, no official celebration of the birthday was announced.
Receiving more media coverage than other news concerning the palace is a corruption case affecting Felipe’s brother-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin.
An investigating judge ruled on Wednesday that Urdangarin and an associate must post €8 million ($11 million) in civil bail, while waiting to see if they will go on trial accused of embezzling public funds.
Separately, the palace reacted to the judge’s decision to summon Carlos Garcia Revenga, secretary to the king’s daughters Elena and Cristina — Urdangarin’s wife — to be questioned in the case.
The palace said it was keeping Garcia in his post and would take no action until he goes before the judge on Feb. 23 — when Urdangarin himself is also due to appear, for the second time.
Juan Carlos won wide respect for helping guide Spain to democracy as a parliamentary monarchy after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, and for helping quell an attempted military coup in 1981.
It is a hard act for Felipe to follow. A generation after those historic events took place, the palace faces a challenge to convince the nation that the monarchy is still needed.
A public opinion poll that was conducted in early January by El Mundo newspaper showed that support for the monarchy as an institution overall had fallen to a record low of 54 percent.
Felipe said in a speech in 2011 that he wanted to “constantly adapt and adjust the institution to the times we are living in, working to unite our history with our future, to link our traditions to a cutting-edge spirit and progress.”
The towering prince — who according to Spanish media is 197 cm tall — appears smiling and approachable when greeting the public and can give speeches in English with a cut-glass English accent.
His wife Letizia, a former television journalist, and their blonde daughters, the Infantas Leonor, 8, and Sofia, 5, are darlings of the glossy celebrity magazines.
Observers say Felipe needs to work his charms still harder to win over a skeptical nation, currently suffering its worst economic hardship since Juan Carlos helped steer the country to democracy in the late 1970s.
Abdication by Juan Carlos would be a risky move at the moment, “with the Urdangarin case up in the air and with Felipe still not having broken the wall that separates him from the public,” said Pilar Urbano, a prominent author specializing in royal matters.
“Letizia represents an opportunity to make the monarchy more sociable. It is still all about balconies, protocol and the throne,” she said. “It would be good to see them both out shopping in the sales.”