Juan Carlos I (born 1938), proclaimed king of Spain on November 22, 1975, played an instrumental role in the transformation of his nation from a dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy.
Juan Carlos Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón was born in the Anglo-American Hospital in Rome, Italy, on January 5, 1938. His grandfather, Alfonso XIII, had been king of Spain from 1902 to 1931, after which Spain became a republic. With the emergence of Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship in 1939, the father of Juan Carlos, Don Juan de Borbón y Brattenberg, became a pretender to the Spanish throne and a hostile critic of Franco's regime, which endured until 1975.
Juan Carlos' early years were spent in exile in Rome, Lausanne, Switzerland, and Estoril, Portugal. He did not set foot on Spanish soil until Franco summoned him to "supervise" his education. After completing his high school education in 1955, Juan Carlos studied at Spain's military academy, naval college, and general air academy. Later in life his strong background and contacts in the armed forces would help save a fledgling constitutional monarchy from an attempted military coup. After military training Juan Carlos began his studies at Madrid University. In the 1960s, he augmented his education with training at a number of public administration agencies: the Ministry of Public Works, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of the Interior, and Ministry of Commerce.
In 1961, the future king announced his engagement to Princess Sofia of Greece, and they were married the following year in Athens. Three children, one boy and two girls, were subsequently born to the royal couple. Princess Sofia's background was in many ways similar to that of her husband. She had spent part of her childhood in Egypt and in South Africa and had studied in Germany. She held a diploma in pediatrics, had a keen interest in archaeology and classical music, and became fluent in Greek, Spanish, English, German, and French.
In 1969 General Franco made an announcement important of Juan Carlos and to the nation's future. Franco declared that after his retirement or death Juan Carlos, and not Don Carlos (the father of Juan Carlos), would become king. When Franco fell ill in the summer of 1974, Juan Carlos became Spain's acting head of state. Franco died in November of 1975, and Juan Carlos was proclaimed king in a ceremony in the Cortes, the Spanish parliament. King Juan Carlos declared: "The Monarchy can and must be effective as a political system if it is able to maintain a just and true balance of powers, and if it is rooted in the real life of the Spanish people." Thus began the change to a constitutional monarchy.
Until the time of Franco's death, little was known about the political convictions of Juan Carlos. Yet, following his ascendancy he retained the loyalty of the military and Franco supporters while providing Spain with a peaceful transition to a political democracy. The new king asked Carlos Arias Navarro (Franco's prime minister) to remain in office, but eventually appointed Adolfo Suárez, a man often identified as a loyal follower of Franco but who turned out to be a cryptodemocrat, to be his prime minister. Political collaboration between Juan Carlos and Suárez led to the Law of Political Reform, passed by the Cortes in November 1976. This new law ended dictatorship and called for a new bicameral legislature, elected through universal suffrage. A month later the same law was submitted to the people in a referendum. It won approval by 94 percent of the voters.
In 1977, the king and Suárez began moving Spain closer to a true political democracy. Political parties (including the socialist and communist parties) were once again legalized; the right to strike was recognized; and the organization of free trade unions was permitted. Then, on June 15, 1977, more than 18 million people—79 percent of the electorate—went to the polls to elect a 350-member lower house, known as the Congress. The major winners were the center-right coalition, represented by the Democratic Center Union (UCD) with 34.8 percent of the vote, and the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) with 29.4 percent. A sub-committee of the newly elected Congress produced a constitution that provided Spain with a constitutional monarchy. Under the new constitution, approved by the Cortes in October 1978 and by a national referendum in December, legislative power was vested in a bicameral Cortes, while the king was "the head of state and symbol of its unity and permanence." The constitution vested executive authority in the prime minister, but the king sanctions and promulgates laws and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Furthermore, the king, after consulting with representatives of the political parties, nominates a candidate for prime minister, who must win a vote of confidence in the Congress of Deputies. On December 27, 1978, Juan Carlos, before the Cortes, sanctioned the new constitution.
Besides overseeing the transition from dictatorship to constitutional government, Juan Carlos personally intervened in matters of state and saved the new government from a right-wing military coup in 1981. On February 23, 1981, a group of military conspirators stormed the Cortes while it was voting on a new prime minister. Although the conspirators intended to set up an authoritarian monarchy under the protection of the armed forces, the plan failed because Juan Carlos refused to engage in the attempted coup. Throughout the night of February 23 the king worked to rally loyal military officers by telephone; and at 1 a.m. on February 24 he addressed the nation pleading for calm and trust, assuring his people that the constitution would be honored. Within hours the coup was over. The king had saved the Spanish experiment with political democracy.
After the abortive coup of 1981, Juan Carlos' Spain witnessed several key political developments. First, in 1982 the electorate voted the Spanish Socialist Workers' party, headed by Felipe González, into power. Secondly, in the summer of 1985 the king made an official visit to France where he and President Mitterrand signed an historic accord pledging economic, political, and military cooperation between the two nations. Thirdly, on January 1, 1986, Spain entered the European Economic Community, a development that it hoped would aid the modernization of the Spanish economy and further stabilize the nation's political system. Fourthly, in March of 1986 Spanish voters went to the polls in a referendum and elected to remain in NATO, a position that the new socialist government favored because of the technological, economic, and political benefits to be gained from membership in the Atlantic alliance. Before the socialist victory in 1982 socialist leader González had opposed Spain's tie to NATO. Thus, Spain owes its re-entry into the European community and its return to democracy in large part to Juan Carlos' direction and moderation.
Spain's central government maintains authority in a complex relationship with 16 "autonomous" regions, including Catalonia, home of the Basque separatist movement. When Catalan activists attempted to turn the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games into a political embarrassment for the Madrid government and for Juan Carlos, the king defused the potential crisis and engendered warmer feelings between Barcelona and Madrid than had existed in years. At the opening ceremonies he said a few words in the Catalan language, attended many events, and watched as his son, Prince Felipe, carried the Spanish flag into the stadium.
Juan Carlos of Spain: Self-Made Monarch was published in 1996; two other readable and comprehensive works that examine the political transition in Spain under Juan Carlos are E. Ramón Arango's Spain: From Repression to Renewal (1985); and David Gilmour's The Transition of Spain: From Franco to the Constitutional Monarchy (1985); also Stanley Payne, editor, Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century Spain (1976).