Spain's popular prince must charm Catalonia as king
MADRID (Reuters) - Many Spaniards are hoping for a lot more than polish and glamour from new King Felipe VI when he takes the throne on Thursday after his father's surprise abdication.
The new monarch faces daunting expectations that he can help resolve some thorny political problems - especially a surging independence movement in wealthy Catalonia in northeastern Spain - even though his role as head of state is largely symbolic.
Part of this is because the 46-year-old, who has a degree in diplomacy from Washington D.C.'s Georgetown University and is married to a television journalist, is widely popular.
He also has an untainted image that contrasts with that of his father and other members of his family.
But some constitutional experts and politicians are hoping the new king will use behind-the-scenes influence to push Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and opposition leaders into reforming Spain's 1978 constitution to resolve the Catalan crisis by redesigning relations between autonomous regions and the central government.
"The new king could push in some way a constitutional reform to help to legitimize the monarchy more fully," said Joaquin Tornos, a law professor at the University of Barcelona.
Felipe - whose father King Juan Carlos lost favor after going on a secret elephant hunting trip at the height of Spain's financial crisis in 2012 - could use gestures, conversations and consultations to push dialogue, Tornos said.
As constitutional monarch, he is seen as the only player who could break a stand off between Catalan leader Artur Mas - who vows to hold a vote on independence in November - and Rajoy, who pledges to block the vote.
Mas has tapped into a growing Catalan independence mood fueled by a long recession and perceptions of unfair taxation.
It cannot hurt that Felipe has studied Catalan - the language spoken by 7 million people in northeastern Spain - setting him apart from most of the Spanish-speaking Madrid-based ruling class.
"He can function as a moderator or arbitrator to help a new consensus emerge on a possible constitutional reform, which is very necessary and which I believe should be profound," said Gregorio Camara, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Granada, who led a team that drafted a white paper on constitutional reform last year for opposition Socialists.
Spain's 1978 constitution was the fruit of a delicate consensus on stability after the long dictatorship that followed the brutal civil war of the 1930s.
After the 1975 death of General Francisco Franco, Spain's polarized leaders agreed to a constitutional monarchy to mollify rightists. They also created 17 autonomous regions with a promise of significant devolution for the separatist-minded Basques and for Catalonia.Thirty-six years later, the consensus has crumbled, undermined by economic hard times and high-level corruption.
Criminal charges against Felipe's brother-in-law - accused of embezzling millions of euros of public funds - were a major factor in King Juan Carlos' stepping down. Separately, a former ruling People's Party (PP) treasurer is in jail on bribery, money-laundering and other charges.
Still reeling from the euro zone crisis and battered by crippling unemployment, Spaniards are in a feisty mood.
A recent poll showed that most now say they would like to vote on whether they have a monarchy; many Catalans and Basques feel the promise of self-rule was a cruel hoax as the central government has balked at further devolution; and the Socialists and centre-right PP who have shared power for decades have hit historic lows with voters.Emerging leaders from the left are calling for a complete overhaul at a constitutional convention followed by ratification in a freshly elected Parliament and a people's referendum.
"The consensus of '78, of the transition, doesn't work any more. The media, the political parties, the unions, the judges, the monarchy, none of it works," said Juan Carlos Monedero, spokesman for Podemos, a new leftist political party that took a surprise 8 percent of the vote in the May 25 European election.
The beleaguered Socialists - haemorrhaging voters and struggling to renew their discredited leadership - have also embraced constitutional reform.
In the white paper led by Camara last year, Socialists argued a new constitution should change Spain's territorial model into a federal state that explicitly recognises the historical, cultural and linguistic differences of Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia.
The idea is to address weaknesses in the 1978 Constitution, which critics say diluted self-rule for Catalonia and the Basques by trying to treat all 17 autonomous regions equally, even those with no historical quest for nationhood.
It also proposes making the Senate - one of Spain's most criticized institutions - into a body that represents the interests of 17 regions - another way to address Catalonia's grievances.
NOT THE ANSWER
Few in the ruling People's Party, however, support constitutional reform and many question how far the king can play a negotiating role given the limitations on his power.
"The important thing would be to rebuild a wider consensus, a political accord, between the PP and the Socialists, rather than destroy the constitutional architecture," said Javier Zarzalejos, head of the conservative FAES think tank.
Others argue that the PP and Socialists could agree minor changes to the constitution and pass them through Parliament as they did in 2011, for example, to put a deficit ceiling into the constitution at the height of the fiscal crisis.
Rajoy is resisting debate on reform. Officials close to him say his view is that a new constitution wouldn't satisfy Catalans who want to secede. They say the prime minister believes Spain is already so highly decentralized - under a series of pacts the central government has with each region - that a constitutional reform could even lead to less devolution.
(Editing by Elisabeth O'Leary/Jeremy Gaunt)