Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Juan Carlos I: The Democratic King

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Juan Carlos I: The Democratic King

Article excerpt

Juan Carlos I of Spain is a king for our times. Not for him ermine robes, crown, sceptre, or throne--although he was well and truly on the throne when he brought about the collapse of an attempted military coup in February 1981. On that occasion he revealed his moral stature to his fellow citizens and showed the world his democratic convictions.

"The Crown cannot tolerate the slightest act or behaviour that seeks to disrupt by force the democratic process enshrined in the constitution that has been approved by the Spanish people by referendum." With these words the King ended his short and solemn television address on the night of 23-24 February 1981, when the government, the parliament and a group of journalists were being held inside the Cortes by a clique of officers nostalgic for he old regime.

Juan Carlos's action served to inject an anti-putsch vaccine into the fragile, youthful body of Spanish democracy. Ever since, no Spaniard has ever had to ask what the king is there for.

His opposition to the putsch, which marked a final break with the previous regime, endorsed the legitimacy of a monarch who from that moment could rightfully be called the "democratic King of Spain". His democratic purpose had, of course, already been clearly shown during the difficult transition period, but here suddenly it was expressed in a founding act that confirmed the shift from dictatorship to democracy.

After inheriting from General Franco full powers over the army, the Council of Ministers, the Cortes and the legislative system, the King thus rendered to the people a sovereignty that was a political hot the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. He returned Spain, according to a widely used phrase, "to the hands of the Spanish people" and, with the agreement of all democratic forces, applied the Constitution approved in 1978. This Constitution is in many respects one of the most advanced in Europe, particularly concerning regional political freedoms and the defence of the rights of cultural minorities.

Juan Carlos's actions met the expectations of Spanish civil society which had entered the post-Franco era long before Franco's death and wished to get into step with the civil societies of the other developed countries of Europe. At first, some politicians wrongly saw Juan Carlos as the successor of the previous regime, even going so far as to nickname him "Juan Carlos the Short". They could not have been more mistaken. Juan Carlos soon came to embody the Spanish people's aspirations for change--one of the profoundest collective feelings expressed in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

The King always insists that "the protagonist of the transition was the people" and that he has done nothing more than his duty in assuming the responsibility that history and the demands of the moment imposed on him.

He was in fact the catalyst of a decisive political change that astonished other democratic societies and gave hope to those still subject to dictatorship. The transfer of power in Spain was a model, a source of inspiration for guiding democratic changes not only in a number of Latin American countries but also, and despite a very different political situation, in the Eastern bloc countries, including Russia.

Juan Carlos started out from a simple, solid principle: he wished to be "the King of all the Spaniards" that he was proclaimed to be in the posters waved by his supporters on coronation day, 22 November 1975. He would not only be the king of those who had won the Civil War; he would also be the King of those who had lost it. He would not only be the king of the Castilians and the Aragonese; he would also be the king of the Basques, the Catalans, the Galicians and the other inhabitants of Spanish territory. His attitude coincided with the widespread opinion in the political parties in favour of national reconciliation, the feeling that the Civil War was a thing of the past. …

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