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The Elephant in Spain’s Royal Counting House

MADRID, Apr 18 2012 (IPS) - The budget for maintaining the Spanish royal household, and the use made of these public funds by King Juan Carlos, are fuelling ongoing debate as Spain endures a severe economic crisis accompanied by severe cuts in social spending and soaring unemployment.

King Juan Carlos Credit: BY 2.0

King Juan Carlos Credit: BY 2.0

The 74-year-old king’s recent accident on a hunting trip in Botswana, where he broke his hip from a fall at his hotel, sparked a wave of criticism from Spanish citizens about the expense, as well as his personal behaviour, seen as being in conflict with environmental principles.

The expedition involved large outlays on the flight to that southern African country, staff, rifles and munitions, the royal security detail as well as the cost of the hunting trip itself.

A 12-day stay in one of the camps, with a licence to shoot an elephant, costs some 37,000 euros (48,600 dollars), according to tourist and travel agencies. A photograph of the king, a keen hunter, beside a slain elephant on this trip has been widely circulated.

The expensive jaunt stood in stark contrast with the crisis in Spain, where public employees are facing wage cuts of 25 to 30 percent and five million people are unemployed.

Leaving the hospital on crutches on Wednesday Apr. 18, King Juan Carlos apologised for the lavish hunting trip. “I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again,” he told reporters.

Had it not been for his accident, the king’s trip to Botswana would not have become public knowledge. This brings to the fore a fact that was known, but not previously criticised by the political parties: the king is not obliged to account for how he spends the royal household budget, and has never done so.

Among the harshest critics is Julio Anguita, former coordinator of the United Left (IU) coalition, who said it should be realised that the king “has always had scandals in his court” and that the monarchy “should vanish.” “No one can be above the law,” he said.

The IU formally asked parliament on Wednesday to clarify whether the king’s trip to Botswana was paid for out of the annual royal household budget voted by the legislature, which amounted to 11.2 million dollars in 2011, and whether any ministry contributed in funds or in kind.

While funding for the ministries was cut this year by an average of 17 percent compared with 2011, the royal household budget was reduced by just two percent, with no change to the personal stipends received by members of the royal family. The cutback will only affect maintenance and travel costs.

Rosa Díez, spokeswoman for the centre-left Unión, Progreso y Democracia (UPD – Unity, Progress and Democracy) party, told IPS prior to the king’s apology that it was painful that he had not acknowledged the situation “we are facing, and was instead hunting in Africa at a time when the country is enduring a triple crisis: economic, political and social.”

Similar opinions were expressed by leaders of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), whose parliamentary spokeswoman Soraya Rodríguez said she understood “the incomprehension, ill feelings and outrage” triggered by the incident.

In contrast, the ruling centre-right People’s Party (PP) declined to comment. Its secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal, said the party would not participate in “the controversy that some sectors are trying to stir up.”

Civil society organisations added their voices to the uproar against the royal household. Animal welfare activists gathered around the hospital where the king was convalescing from his hip replacement, demanding that he reconsider his hunting activities.

Javier Moreno, the spokesman for Animal Equality, an NGO, said the pain the king suffered as a result of his accident should make him think about the pain he has inflicted on animals “for so many years.”

Actuable, an organisation that combats injustice, called for the king to be stripped of his honorary presidency of the Spanish branch of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), a post he has held since 1968, arguing that it was incompatible with his passion for hunting.

WWF said only that they would inform the king about the large number of requests from their members recommending that he step down.

But big game hunting in Africa is not the only blot on the Spanish royal house at present.

Another problem occurred when the king’s grandson, 13-year-old Froilán Marichalar, accidentally shot himself in the foot with a shotgun during target practice on a family estate. Firearm use is illegal in Spain for children under 14.

But the worst headache for the royal household at the moment is the judicial investigation of the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarín, the husband of Princess Cristina, for allegedly embezzling public money.

Manuel González Peeters, defence lawyer for Diego Torre, who was Urdangarín’s partner at the charitable Nóos Institute, said he had turned documents over to the SER radio broadcasting chain that, if confirmed, may even implicate the king.

The secretary general of PSOE in Madrid, Tomás Gómez, asked King Juan Carlos to choose between his responsibilities and either face up to the various cases that have arisen, or abdicate. The latter course, it is whispered, might lead to Spain’s becoming a republic, although it is generally agreed that this is a remote possibility.

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