King Juan Carlos's solidarity with austerity-hit subjects collapses amid hunting trips, corruption claims and bedroom intrigue
Giles Tremlett in Madrid
King Juan Carlos on his €10,000-a-day hunting safari in Botswana, which had been hushed up before he fell and broke his hip. Photograph: Target Press/Barcroft Media
They were once the star royal family of Europe, seen as hard-working, frugal, modern and genuinely popular among ordinary Spaniards who adored King Juan Carlos as the great bringer of democracy.
But now Spain's royals have revealed an ability to shoot themselves in the foot, both literally and metaphorically, in a way that has left angry citizens wondering if they even notice how ordinary people are suffering.
As unemployment reached 24%, austerity measures bit and the economy headed back towards double-dip recession, the 74-year-old monarch had publicly claimed he lay in bed at night worrying about the plight of the young jobless. But a fall as he walked to the bathroom in an exclusive safari camp in Botswana, where he had gone to shoot elephants, water buffaloes and other exotic animals, has revealed a different story.
While Spaniards desperately sought work or struggled to meet basic needs, the king was on a hush-hush, all-expenses-paid hunting trip, blasting at animals in one of the world's most exotic landscapes – Botswana's Okavango delta.
His big-game-slaying holiday was estimated to cost €10,000 (£8,000) a day, with a Syrian businessman close to the Saudi royal family rumoured to be picking up the tab.
It was not the kind of thing Spaniards wanted to hear as the government announced health and education cuts and fears grew of a bailout accompanied by years of harsh austerity.
"We all have to tighten our belts a bit because of the difficult times for the economy," the king had told them over the summer, as he backed austerity.
The hunting trip was just the latest in a series of gaffes which have seen Spain's normally respectful press tear up a decades-old deal not to scrutinise the royal family.
That agreement had stayed in place since Juan Carlos inherited General Francisco Franco's powers after the dictator's death in 1975 and oversaw the restoration of monarchy and democracy. His role in quashing a 1981 coup attempt appeared to cement his position.
In recent months, however, the king has struggled to separate the monarchy from a corruption scandal surrounding his son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín, Duke of Palma.
The duke, a former Olympic medal winner with Spain's handball team, denies allegations that he used charities as fronts for taking millions of euros in public money, some of it hidden from tax authorities, so that he could cash in on his royal title by appearing at events alongside politicians.
"Everyone, especially those of us with public functions, must behave correctly, in an exemplary fashion," the king solemnly declared in his Christmas broadcast as the scandal snowballed and the monarchy's popularity tumbled in opinion polls.
He hired a new public relations chief, former El País columnist Javier Ayuso, with glowing pro-monarchy editorials appearing in the centre-left daily and other newspapers. The royal palace's accounts were also made public in what Spaniards were told was a new era of transparency.
But Juan Carlos's attempts at portraying his family as hard-working, humble and law-abiding had taken a blow when his 13-year-old grandson, Froilán Marichalar, shot himself through the foot with a 36-calibre shotgun just a few days before the Botswana incident.
Newspapers reported that Froilán was too young to use the shotgun legally, raising further questions about whether the royals felt normal rules did not apply to them.
"These people just don't understand the reality of this country," complained Mercedes Munarriz, a sound engineer. "They even seem to be running a perfect campaign against themselves."
But it was the king's Botswana fall, which required him to fly back for a hip operation in Madrid, that provoked an unprecedented torrent of criticism of a monarch unused to harsh words from the press or mainstream politicians.
"The king should choose between responsibility and abdication," said Tomás Gómez, head of Madrid's Socialist party, as pressure grew for Juan Carlos to make way for his son, Felipe.
"The African elephant scandal is not anecdotal," said Ignacio Escolar, one of Spain's most popular bloggers. "It cannot be so when the Spanish monarchy has spent months going from scandal to scandal, when the economic crisis makes Spaniards question all their institutions and when even his own family cannot escape the stain of corruption."
Even the king's private life, where rumours of lovers have always been rife, is no longer out of bounds – and neither is his friendship with a German aristocrat whose name is widely available in Spain and Germany, but whose lawyers say she denies any inappropriate relationship and have threatened legal action against any British newspapers that reveal her name.
"The failure of his marriage to Queen Sofia, from whom he is practically separated, is public knowledge," said José Antonio Zarzalejos, a former editor of the conservative ABC newspaper, in his online column.
Officials at the king's Zarzuela palace declined to say who had travelled with him or paid for a trip that they described as private, nor would they comment on his personal life.
A more ferocious debate was taking place on social networks and the internet. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said it had received more than 80,000 internet complaints against the king – its honorary president in Spain – for shooting elephants for fun.
"The impact is huge in Britain, Germany, Holland, the United States and other countries," said WWF Spain's boss, Juan Carlos del Olmo, explaining why it was considering sacking the king. "It is more of an image problem, both national and international, than a conservation question."
Palace officials said they had not been formally told of any plans by the WWF to break with the monarch.
Foreign Policy magazine blogger Joshua E Keating added to Spain's sense of humiliation by asking whether the king had deliberately sought the least politically correct holiday. "Was the baby-seal-clubbing junket all booked up?" he wondered.
The Spanish government has also received a deluge of requests that taxpayer funds given to the king should not be excluded from a new transparency law. All this pales, however, beside the latest allegations made by defence lawyers representing a business partner of the king's son-in-law.
This week they provided copies of emails which allegedly showed that Juan Carlos acted as an intermediary between Urdangarín and public officials, trying to persuade politicians to get involved with the creation of a new America's Cup sailing project. Urdangarín had allegedly hoped to earn money from it.
There was no suggestion the king had done anything illegal, though his status excludes him from the legal process anyway. Officials said the emails reflected his support for sailing, one of his family's favourite sports. The news magazine Interviú this week claimed anticorruption investigators are trying to find up to €5m allegedly kept in tax havens by Urdangarín – whose appearances in court have proved an embarrassment. On Wednesday the king appeared on his crutches to issue an 11-word apology for his behaviour. "I am very sorry. I made a mistake and it will not happen again," he said.
"I applaud the apology, but am left with a question. Exactly what is it that won't happen again?" asked Escolar.
Even ministers find themselves getting tangled up in the lexicon of royal gaffes, as the expression "shoot yourself in the foot" gains new significance in Madrid. The foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, had to apologise for using it as a way of describing Argentina's nationalisation of the Spanish-owned oil company YPF this week. "It was an unfortunate expression," he said. "I meant no double-meaning."