MADRID – Prince Felipe faces an uphill battle to revive the monarchy’s popularity when he takes the throne of a nation battered by economic hardships that have shattered faith in political elites, analysts say.
King Juan Carlos, 76, announced Monday that he will hand over the crown to his more popular son, Felipe, 46, saying he wants to hand over to “a younger generation” after several turbulent years in Spain.
The king is credited with smoothing Spain’s transition to democracy after the death of longtime dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975 and was widely respected for most of his nearly four decades on the throne.
But anger over a secret luxury elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in 2012, when one in four Spaniards was out of work, and a corruption scandal centered on his youngest daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, hurt his standing.
While the popularity of the king and the monarchy has fallen, Felipe, a 198-cm-tall former Olympic yachtsman who has kept his distance from his corruption-tainted sister, has seen his standing rise.
Sixty-six percent of people had a positive view of the prince, according to a poll published in January in the center-right newspaper El Mundo.
But once Felipe takes the throne, he will become the target of public anger over the monarchy’s handling of the corruption case and the state of the economy, said journalist Jose Apezarena, who has written several books about the royals.
“It is a very difficult moment to come to the throne. We have a country that is in an economic crisis and the Urdangarin case has not yet been resolved,” he said.
“I think it would have been more logical to wait until the case was resolved before proceeding to the succession. The Urdangarin case is from now on going to wear down Felipe, not Juan Carlos,” he added.
A judge is expected to decide shortly whether to put Urdangarin and Cristina on trial — him on charges of embezzling public funds through a charity he once ran, and her on fraud charges. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Three small leftist parties — Podemos, United Left and the Equo green party which between them took 20 percent of the vote in last month’s European parliament elections — called Monday for a referendum on the monarchy.
They appealed via social networking sites for Spaniards to gather Monday evening in squares across the country to demand a referendum on whether or not to maintain the monarchy.
“It is not a good time. There is great social tension due to the country’s economic problems. I don’t know what is going to happen, I fear there could be commotion, there will be all sorts of demands,” royal biographer Cesar del al Lama said.
“There will be tension, there will be difficult times, but the prince just has to demonstrate that he is capable, because he is. He has a clean record, is fair, hard working. You can’t ask for more,” he added.
“He will not be weighed down like the king by having a corrupt son-in-law, he will not make a mistake like the Botswana hunting trip.”
The king has called Felipe, who was schooled for his future role as monarch in the three branches of the armed forces and during studies abroad, the “best prepared” heir to the Spanish throne in history.
He kept him at his side on the night of Feb. 23, 1981, when soldiers seized parliament, firing shots over the heads of lawmakers, in a bid to re-establish a military regime.
Juan Carlos appeared live on TV in military uniform and ordered the coup plotters back to their barracks, a move that cemented his image as the guarantor of Spain’s young democracy.
“It is a difficult time but the prince has had the best preparation since the day he was born to lead at this moment,” Fermin J. Urbiola, a journalist who has written several books on the king, said.