Friday, September 28, 2007 at 04:05
By Sinikka Tarvainen, dpa
Madrid (dpa) - Pictures of Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia are hung upside down and set on fire. Demonstrators watch them being devoured by flames, displaying banners reading: "I am against the monarchy" and "I burn the crown." Until recently, such television images would have been almost unthinkable in Spain, but anti-monarchist demonstrations have now occurred at least three times in the north-eastern region of Catalonia.
They were preceded by a scandal in Madrid over a caricature on the crown prince, criticism of the royal family's lack of financial transparency and unusually malicious gossip on the royals' private lives on television.
What is going on in Spain, which was thought to be a steadfast monarchy with "Juancarlist" citizens?
There is little doubt that the monarchy still enjoys widespread support. The anti-monarchist rallies in Catalonia only drew a few hundred people, and none of the mainstream political parties would even dream of proposing swapping the monarchy for a republic.
At the same time, however, officials at the Zarzuela royal palace admit that they are concerned.
Isolated and insignificant protests, they fear, could be taken advantage of by separatists seeking independence from Spain in Catalonia and the Basque region.
Protests could also boost Spaniards' feelings of envy over royal privileges, commentators said, and get out of hand.
Spain's 69-year-old king has enjoyed what appeared to be almost unanimous popular support since he helped to thwart a military coup in 1981.
Juan Carlos, Sofia and their children are well-liked also for their professionalism and approachable style. The king has, however, never forgotten that he has to "earn his throne every day," as he once said, in the country with a strong republican tradition.
The first warning sign came nearly a year ago, when unconfirmed reports on the king hunting a drugged bear in Russia made the monarch look slightly ridiculous.
In the summer, a satirical magazine published a caricature on Crown Prince Felipe having sex with his wife, and a Basque politician slammed the royals as "idlers."
The small Catalan separatist and republican party ERC then raised the issue that the king is not accountable to anyone over how he uses his budget.
The royal family's budget of about 8 million euros (11 million dollars) is one of the smallest among Europe's royal families, and lower than those of many presidents, constitutional law expert Antonio Torres del Moral pointed out.
Juan Carlos nevertheless appointed an auditor to monitor his spending, a move which many analysts believe to have aimed at pre- empting criticism from the ERC and far-left parties.
The ERC is continuing its campaign against the monarchy, while smaller and more radical Catalan groups have burned pictures of the royal couple during rallies in Gerona.
Judicial efforts to protect the royal family have backfired, bringing critics and protesters more publicity.
The authors of the caricature on Felipe are on trial for libel against the crown. The offence can be penalized with up to two years in prison, though the caricaturists probably do not face more than a heavy fine.
The National Court is also preparing legal action against young Catalans who burned pictures of the king and queen. A court hearing of one of the burners prompted another similar rally.
The ERC proposed eliminating the offence of libel against the crown from legislation, arguing that in the United States, the right to burn the national flag formed part of the freedom of opinion.
If Spaniards were more aware of the huge services that Juan Carlos rendered to the country, nobody would criticize him, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was quoted as saying privately.
The government has also come out in public support of the monarchy, aware of what the anti-monarchist protests have chiefly been about.
The real target of the attacks against the king is the unity of Spain, the daily El Mundo quoted palace officials as saying.
Analysts observe a growing separatist drive in Catalonia, a wealthy region of 7 million. Separatist-minded politicians have strengthened their position also in the Basque region, where they are planning an illegal referendum on self-determination.
About 77 per cent of Spaniards still have a good impression of the king, even if his popularity has declined among young people, according to a 2005 poll.
"Can anyone imagine a republic presided over by (former prime minister Jose Maria) Aznar or Zapatero?" the weekly Tiempo asked, answering its own question: "More than ever, Juan Carlos is necessary."