April 4, 2014 5:42 pm

King’s heroic role in Spain’s transition to democracy questioned

Spain's King Juan Carlos arrives to the state funeral of former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez at Madrid's Almudena Cathedral , March 31, 2014. Suarez, who died on March 23, steered Spain through one of the most turbulent periods in its political history and built bridges between the "two Spains" after fascist dictator General Francisco Franco died in 1975. REUTERS/Andres Ballesteros/Pool (SPAIN - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY)©Reuters

Spain’s embattled royal house has been drawn into a new controversy, with the publication of a book claiming that King Juan Carlos played a less heroic role during the country’s transition to democracy than previously thought.

Written by Pilar Urbano, a veteran journalist and popular historian, the book was released on Thursday to huge public interest and significant pent-up demand. Titled The Great Forgetfulness, it spent a week on top of Amazon’s list of bestsellers in Spain before going on sale.


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The book’s core accusation is that Juan Carlos supported a campaign by senior military leaders to oust Spain’s elected government, and personally put fierce pressure on Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister, to stand down.

The claims have met near-universal condemnation from historians and contemporary witnesses – including several who were interviewed for the book – and a barrage of hostile reviews. In an unusual move that highlights the sensitivity of the accusations, the palace itself issued public statements dismissing Ms Urbano’s claims as “pure fiction”.

The controversy is the latest in a series of setbacks and scandals to trouble Spain’s monarch, who has appeared unusually frail in recent months and has suffered a sharp slide in popularity. The most damaging blow so far came in January, when a Spanish court identified the king’s younger daughter as a formal suspect in a high-profile money laundering and tax evasion case.

While the king has struggled to raise his standing, the monarch’s historical role – especially during the transition – has long been viewed as above reproach. Juan Carlos won widespread admiration both in Spain and abroad for his role during the transition, and is credited with helping to steer the country to its first democratic election after decades of dictatorship. He played a particularly important part during the attempted military coup in February 1981, intervening decisively to isolate the plotters and keep key parts of the military on side.

But the new 864-page history casts doubt on the depth of Juan Carlos’s commitment to democracy at key moments during the transition, portraying him as too close to military plotters on the far right. The most incendiary claim centres on the king’s alleged support for a campaign to oust Mr Suárez and replace him with Alfonso Armada, an army general.

The so-called Operation Armada was distinct from the actual 1981 coup attempt, even if several key military figures were involved in both plots. Rumours over the king’s support – tacit or otherwise – for installing a new government led by a military man have long circulated. Gen Armada was a close adviser to the palace at a moment when Juan Carlos was increasingly troubled by the weakness and unpopularity of Mr Suárez’s government.

Most historians agree, however, that Juan Carlos was determined throughout to prevent a slide back into autocratic rule. Paul Preston, a professor at the London School of Economics and one of the most respected historians of 20th century Spain, writes in his biography of the king: “He was meticulous in his respect for the constitution.”

Ms Urbano’s claims appear especially poignant because they surface less than a month after the widely mourned death of Mr Suárez, who was described by the king in his eulogy as “a loyal friend”.

According to Ms Urbano, however, the two men had a series of bitter clashes over the king’s alleged campaign to oust Mr Suárez from office. She recounts a heated conversation between the two in January 1981 in which the king told his prime minister: “One of the two [of us] is superfluous in this country. One of the two is too much. And, as you will understand, I will not abdicate.”

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