(Repeats without change story issued on April 17)
* Spain's royals were hugely admired
* Scandals take their toll
* Growing number of Spaniards want king to abdicate
By Elisabeth O'Leary
MADRID, April 17 Spain's King Juan Carlos stood
with a throng of smiling journalists and onlookers, exchanging
pleasantries, laughing at jokes and even trying on a pair of
sunglasses proffered by a reporter from a comedy show.
That was a typical public appearance back in 1997 when he
was one of the world's most popular monarchs, the media treated
him kindly and the idea of abdication would have seemed absurd.
Now almost half of Spaniards think he should step down in
favour of his son, Prince Felipe, 45, and over a third, mostly
young people, want their country to become a republic.
The 75-year-old king has had a spectacular fall from grace
as scandals undermine public approval and his health weakens.
Liked and respected, Juan Carlos even won the admiration of
republicans for his role in Spain's peaceful transition to
democracy in the 1970s after four decades of dictatorship, and
put paid to a military coup attempt in 1981.
Now, public opinion has been soured by criminal charges
against Juan Carlos' daughter and her husband in an embezzlement
case, an unexplained Swiss bank account and a flamboyant
lifestyle -- including a big-game hunting trip to Africa -- that
jarred with the economic crisis engulfing the nation.
A line was crossed earlier this year with the publication of
media interviews with a businesswoman friend of the king who
says she has carried out consultancy work for the government.
Chat shows and social media referred to Corinna zu
Sayn-Wittgenstein as the king's mistress, prompting huge public
sympathy for Queen Sofia, married to a man who the queen's
official biographer described as liking all women except the one
he chose as a wife.
For its part, the royal household keeps silent in the face
of such talk. But as ordinary Spaniards struggle with debts,
unemployment and widespread corruption in politics, the king's
activities now provoke disdain after years of deference.
"Public opinion has nothing to hold on to. People are a
little unhinged, overwhelmed by what is happening in Spain,"
says Bieito Rubido, editor of monarchist newspaper ABC.
Like most royal observers, he does not believe the future of
the monarchy is at stake.
But questions about the future of the crown have added to a
general loss of faith in public institutions, bogged down with
corruption cases after a housing bubble burst five years ago,
plunging Spain into crisis.
"People are extremely frustrated with the economic situation
and want someone to blame, so it's a situation where anything
could happen," said Jonathan Hopkin, a politics expert at the
London School of Economics.
Sources familiar with palace thinking say the royal family
is concerned about the decline in its popularity and is eager to
avoid adding more uncertainty to the climate of crisis for
ordinary Spaniards. The palace is monitoring public opinion
extremely closely via social media and its own polls.
Abolishing the monarchy altogether is not something the
political class is contemplating, and two leftist deputies who
have called for the king to retire were immediately slapped down
by other lawmakers.
If abdication is being contemplated, no one is admitting it.
But the danger is that the longer the issue is left, the more
damaged the institution inherited by Prince Felipe. The problem
is that Juan Carlos would be leaving in disgrace which he is not
likely to do, royal experts believe.
HOPES REST ON FELIPE
He does have an example, however, elsewhere in Europe. Queen
Beatrix of the Netherlands has announced that she will step down
this month at the age of 75 in favour of a 45-year-old son.
Prince Felipe is well-liked, polls show, but the monarchy as
a whole has suffered.
In a 1997 poll, the monarchy rated 6.67 out of 10, the
highest of any institution in Spain. In 2011 that had dropped to
Although talk of the king's poor health after four surgeries
in the last year persists, he does not want to hand over.
"He does not want to abdicate under any circumstance, and
succession can't take place against his will," says ABC's
Prince Felipe is discreet but friendly and well-versed in
current affairs. His wife, commoner Letizia Ortiz, is a former
journalist and is also popular.
Felipe is reported to be furious with his father and his
brother-in-law over the embezzlement scandal. But it seems the
king will try to sit out the storm in the hope that it will
eventually die down and he can recover some of his popularity.
Days after a magistrate charged Princess Cristina, the
palace announced that it would be included in a new transparency
law which could potentially shed light on royal finances,
including government payments on top of the annual 8 million
euros annual stipend.
But Arsenio Escolar, editor of the mass-circulation
newspaper 20 Minutos, says too little is being offered too late.
"Public indignation is growing, people can't take any more
(corruption)," he says. "Protests will return and the street
could be full again within a month."
Despite this, Spaniards over 50 fear that abdication could
stir up echoes of the 1936-1939 Civil War.
After dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos
worked to ensure that Spain became a democracy, convincing all
sides to bury the hatchet.
Older Spaniards feel immense gratitude to Juan Carlos for
stopping the attempted coup of 1981, the fledgling days of the
democracy, when a colonel burst into parliament firing a gun in
the air and holding deputies hostage overnight.
Juan Carlos, head of the armed forces, made a live televised
address in his military uniform, ordering support for the
democratically elected government.
The king's image started to deteriorate with the
investigation into his son-in-law's alleged embezzlement at the
head of the not-for-profit Noos Foundation in 2011.
It plummeted in 2012 when it emerged that Juan Carlos had
gone on an elephant-hunting trip to Africa just as the full
force of Spain's economic crisis hit home.
With one in four Spaniards living in poverty, the palace was
exposed as hopelessly out of touch. The king made an
Since then things have worsened, culminating with the
charging of Princess Cristina in the Noos case this month.
Spaniards do not expect real justice to be done, as one man
drinking coffee in a bar observed.
"There's more chance that those of us here go to jail (than
Princess Cristina) even though we haven't done anything," said
Javier Martin, 33, who works in marketing.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)