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Spain’s monarchy -A royal mess

 | MADRID

  • SPAIN’S ailing King Juan Carlos stumbled clumsily through a speech to the armed services’ top brass on January 6th, provoking further speculation about his ability to act as head of state. The next day his daughter Princess Cristina (pictured) was accused of “greed” by an investigating magistrate who ordered her to explain, amongst other things, why she billed salsa classes, her children’s birthday parties and household crockery to a company she part-owned with her husband, which was allegedly used to commit tax fraud. The two events augured yet another year of turmoil for a royal family with tumbling popular support.

The increasingly frail-looking 76-year-old monarch, who has had five hip operations over the past two years, had hoped the princess would escape the attention of investigating magistrate José Castro, who has already named her husband Iñaki Urdangarín as a suspected embezzler and tax fraudster. But Judge Castro has now also made her an official suspect and told her to appear before him at a court in Palma de Mallorca in March. Under Spanish law that is not a formal indictment and she may yet escape trial, but the magistrate says she has much explaining to do.

Princess Cristina must answer some tricky questions. Why did she pay her domestic staff in black? Why did her company hire “ghost” employees who did nothing? Why did she rent out part of her luxurious Barcelona mansion to the same, staff-less company? Was a €1.2m ($1.6m) transfer from her father a loan, or a gift kept hidden from the exchequer? Was she really unaware of how her husband allegedly laundered the money he received from public contracts via a non-profit company whose board she served on and into their joint company, or did their luxurious lifestyle depend on lying?

Ordinary Spaniards, beaten down by a long-running economic crisis, might add other questions. Did the princess think she could cheat the tax authorities (if that is what happened) because she was royal? If so, does that reflect a sense of entitlement passed on to her generation by her own father? Those are dangerous questions for a monarchy that was only restored 38 years ago and that hopes for a smooth handover, one day, to her brother Prince Felipe.

The scandal forms part of Spain’s ongoing battle with corruption and the abuse of power by public officials and political appointees who, at least in the public mind, helped pump up a housing bubble and bring down the country’s savings banks. The spotlight fell on the princess and her husband after their names appeared in an investigation into the dealings of Jaume Matas, a former president of the Balearic Islands regional government and member of the Popular Party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister. Mr Urdangarin’s companies, which carried out consultancy work and organised sports conferences, received €5.8m from Mr Matas’s administration and from another corruption-hit PP regional government in Valencia over four years. The evidence presented by Judge Castro suggests much of that money was then hidden from tax authorities.

King Juan Carlos himself had to apologise publicly in 2012 after disappearing on a freebie African elephant hunt with a glamorous female companion (not his wife) while claiming that Spain’s high unemployment rate, now at 25%, prevented him sleeping at night. Allegations that at least part of the royal family routinely cheated the exchequer will make some Spaniards worry they are being taken for fools.

More worrying is the conflict between Judge Castro and the country’s tax authorities. Where he sees royal law-breaking, they do not. GESTHA, Spain’s tax inspectors’ union, on the other hand is accusing tax officials of deliberately turning a blind eye to the princess’s alleged sins. A trial (with a guilty verdict) would raise serious questions about royal and political clout at the nation’s treasury.

The best thing that can happen for the future well-being of Spain’s monarchy would be for the princess to be tried, found guilty and locked up, argues Salvador Sostres, an acerbic columnist of El Mundo, a daily. That, he says, would at least prove that Spain’s royals are not above the law. It would not, however, solve a far more important problem, namely the sluggishness of the country’s courts. Judge Castro opened this investigation three and half a years ago, yet it looks unlikely to come to trial this year.