Politics, princess's trial cast Spain's King Felipe in testing role

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[February 09, 2016]  By Sarah White
 MADRID (Reuters) - Sympathy for the Spanish monarchy is in short supply among the spectators heading into a theater in Madrid's edgy Lavapies district, where an irreverent look at the former King Juan Carlos' fall from grace is playing to sell-out audiences.

His son and successor, King Felipe VI, who is trying to steer the crown through a period of sweeping change in Spain, also gets faint praise from the crowd.

The play, called "El Rey" (the King), is billed as a fresh look at the monarchy's place over the past 40 years and questions whether Juan Carlos really had a useful role in shaping modern Spain. It is less than flattering.

Felipe, 48, took over the throne in June 2014 after his father abdicated following a series of embarrassing episodes.

He is now facing his biggest test yet after the most fractured election result in decades left Spain without a clear government and thrust him into the role of broker between political parties.

At the same time, his sister Princess Cristina is standing trial on fraud charges, the first time a Spanish royal has been put before a criminal court.

The new king's attempts to draw a line under the family scandals and modernize the monarchy have restored some of its popularity but scored few points with the theater crowd in a neighborhood known for its leftist roots.

"I suppose that given he is from a new generation, that he married a journalist, he might have a different attitude," said Jose Antonio Ortega, a retired theater director waiting in the crowded bar to take his seat in El Teatro del Barrio.

But Ortega doubted whether Felipe had any scope to bring change to an institution he sees as an anachronism.

Others Spaniards may have embraced the monarchy's fresher, more frugal image under Felipe in the 18 months he has reigned.

A poll in June 2015 showed a record 61.5 percent approved of the parliamentary monarchy system, more than at the height of Juan Carlos' popularity.

Felipe has also managed to build up the type of personal following his father once enjoyed, with approval ratings of nearly 75 percent.

Juan Carlos was at one time revered, largely for his role in smoothing Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy and in particular in foiling a coup attempt on Feb. 23, 1981, when heavily-armed civil guards took over the parliament.

But a series of gaffes in recent years, including a luxury elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 at a time of severe economic hardship for many Spaniards, eroded a huge amount of support for the royals.

Now Spain's greatest period of political upheaval since the transition in the 1970s has set the stage for Felipe's own chance to define the monarchy for years to come.


The splintered result of the December election, when the ruling People's Party won most parliamentary seats but fell far short of a majority, marked a rejection of the old guard that has largely governed Spain in those four decades.

Like other monarchs in Europe, Felipe holds no real power to make political decisions although he does give the green light to negotiations between parties in a country with little tradition of coalitions.

Any sign he is overstepping the mark would be risky. (In Britain, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles has faced criticism over his perceived meddling in policy issues).

Felipe's closed-door contacts with parties - including two new parties, the anti-austerity Podemos and centrist Ciudadanos - received an unusual degree of scrutiny when leaders gave their versions of the meetings in televised news conferences.

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And while the king has now asked the second-placed Socialists to try to form a coalition, the chances of this option failing are high, which could lead to another election.

Still, the wrangling over a government in Spain could work to Felipe's advantage, said Javier Tajadura, a professor of constitutional law at the University of the Basque Country.

The king had emerged as a dignified figure as parties squabble, Tajadura said.

"He's been very prudent, and followed the steps he needed to take with a scrupulous neutrality," he said.

At a butcher shop in the expensive Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca, owner Jose Alvarez echoed that mood, joking with a customer that the monarch may face no option but to shut leaders in a room to work things out.

"Felipe is doing very well," 42-year-old Alvarez said, breaking away from selling his cured Iberian hams. "He's carrying out his role - the only one he's really going to have in his life."


The coalition talks are not the only political problem facing Felipe. An independence push in the northeastern region of Catalonia, which is governed by pro-secession parties, is putting the head of state in another bind.

But Princess Cristina's trial, due to resume in Mallorca on Tuesday, is potentially the most toxic subject of all.

The princess, who is charged with two counts of being an accessory to tax fraud in a case centered on her husband Inaki Urdangarin's business dealings, faces weeks of court appearances. She denies any wrongdoing.

Even some convinced monarchists like retired insurance worker Jaime Cobian believe Cristina should give up her right to the throne, for which she is seventh in line.

"Cristina and Urdangarin have done so much damage to the monarchy. It's truly scandalous," said the 75-year-old Cobian.

Sensitive to a growing intolerance for corruption - which largely fueled the political upset - and to accusations the monarchy was out of touch, Felipe has struck a more austere tone. His coronation ceremony was pared back and he has opened up the palace accounts to closer scrutiny.

Spain has had brief incarnations as a republic, including in the run-up to the 1936-39 civil war, and has long had a vocal anti-monarchist movement.

Back in the theater in Lavapies, many said the trial was unlikely to sway their long-held opinion of the monarchy.

"Felipe took a first step by cutting his sister out of the family," teacher Carlos Gonzalez said. "Now we're getting to the last stage. Let's see how the trial goes, we'll see if he is really intervening in some way."

(Reporting by Sarah White; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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