Juan Carlos I Of Spain Apologizes for Elephant Hunting: Can He Keep The Throne?

 @JaceyFortin on April 18 2012 5:41 PM
Spain King Juan Carlos
Spain's King Juan Carlos leaves his room at a hospital to issue a public apology. Reuters

Juan Carlos I, the king of Spain, issued a public apology on Wednesday in response to widespread criticism of his ill-timed elephant-hunting vacation in Botswana.

Carlos hobbled on crutches to face reporters and issue his brief apology on Wednesday morning. The video, with remarks translated into English, can be seen here.

The Spanish citizenry first learned about the royal safari after Carlos accidentally broke his hip in Botswana on Friday. He then had to be airlifted to a Madrid hospital for hip replacement, turning a private vacation into a very public event.

The 74-year-old is being criticized on two fronts. Animal welfare advocates admonished him for participating in the killing of African elephants, which have been illegally poached in record numbers over the past few months, while others blasted him for indulging in a lavish vacation at a time when ordinary Spanish citizens are struggling through a severe recession.

Elephant hunting in Botswana is not illegal. It is strictly regulated in order to ensure that it controls, rather than depletes, elephant populations there. It is different from poaching, which involves brutally killing the animals for valuable ivory that is typically sold on the black market. Still, critics saw it as an odd activity choice for a man who serves as the honorary president of Spain's branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Animal rights supporters held a rally on Tuesday, just outside the hospital where the king was resting, demanding that he step down from his WWF post.

Carlos has received more criticism for engaging in such an expensive activity during tough times. A 14-day elephant safari in Botswana goes for $59,000, and that price does not include air charter costs, medical insurance, rifle ammunition, and mandated government observers. Palace officials say that the king participated in the safari as a guest, assuring the public that taxpayer money was not used to fund the vacation.

But that hasn't stopped the backlash.

Spain now has the highest unemployment rate in Europe - it's at 23.6 percent, according to Reuters, which is worse than Greece. Borrowing costs are soaring as the country struggles to avoid default and the pain of increased austerity.

Against this backdrop the king's vacation, which was reportedly sanctioned by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, constitutes quite an affront. Political parties that oppose the monarchy are taking this opportunity to speak out.

The head of state must choose between his obligations and the duty of service of his public responsibilities, or an abdication that would allow him to enjoy a different kind of life, said Tomas Gomez, a socialist party leader.

Leftist party leader Cayo Lara Moya also chimed in. It shows a complete lack of ethics and respect toward the people of Spain who are suffering a lot, he said.

Does this mean the once-revered Spanish monarch is likely to step down?

That would be quite a departure. In the past, Carlos has enjoyed a stellar reputation among his citizens. He ascended to power as the heir of former Dictator General Francisco Franco, becoming Spain's official leader in 1975. Shortly thereafter, he became a hero in the eyes of his countrymen by restoring Spanish democracy and installing a civilian government.

Since then, the monarchy has been somewhat removed from public discourse. Carlos was seen as a symbolic figurehead rather than a leader, consistently refraining from comment on important issues. But his credibility has suffered recently in the wake of several scandals, including an ongoing trial against the king's son-in-law for embezzlement of public funds, as well as a minor shooting accident involving the king's grandson, who is too young to handle firearms.

Still, the televised apology from Carlos has been well-received. It seems unlikely that the monarch will be under much pressure to hand the kingship to his son Felipe, Prince of Asturias, any sooner than he might have otherwise planned. For now, the prince is standing in as acting monarch while his father, who has been discharged from the hospital in Madrid, takes medical leave to recover from his hip replacement.

The royal Palace has pledged to publish more financial records in an effort to promote transparency.

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