One of my first blogs ever, posted in April 2012, was about King Juan Carlos of Spain. I pointed out that though he once was a king much admired, he now was a king much reviled. He was reviled because of his own bone-headed behavior; because the royal family had been tainted by ineptitude and corruption; because his subjects, ordinary Spaniards, were fed up; and because Spain itself had been badly hit by the financial crisis. As I wrote in 2012, “The economy is near double-dip recession and the level of unemployment is frighteningly high…. So for the King to choose this moment to vacation in Africa, rifle in hand, to kill elephants, water buffaloes, and other large animals, suggests a cluelessness that is appalling.”
It did not take long for the King himself to conclude that his time had come and gone. That he would do his country a service if he abdicated the throne in favor of his son. And so last week was the formal if low key installation of the new King, Felipe VI, who subsequently paraded through the streets of Madrid, along with his attractive wife and two young daughters.
Not all European royals have functions that are only ceremonial. In fact, Spain’s 1978 constitution allots to the king an array of powers, including the right to “arbitrate and moderate” affairs of state. But, however appealing may be the new royal family, however relieved are Spaniards to be rid of the old royal family, King Felipe VI is inheriting the throne in a time when Spain is taut with tension.
For all I know, King Felipe VI is the cleverest and most politically skilled of all European royalty. Moreover, as just indicated, he has some power as well as considerable authority. But here is just a short list of what he faces: levels of unemployment that remain alarmingly high; a looming constitutional crisis because of the many Catalonians who want nothing so much as to secede from the Spanish state; an urgent need for political and institutional reform; increasing extremism, a monarchy that has been tarnished; a populace that is depressed; and a soccer team that just suffered (at the feet of Chile) and its most ignominious World Cup defeat ever!
What can any king do? What can any leader do when followers are so quick to find fault and when the context is so complex?
I am not saying that leaders are doomed to fail. I’m just pointing out that leading in a modern democracy is exceedingly hard – notwithstanding a royal mantle newly inherited and notwithstanding a royal title that actually packs a bit of punch.