Spain's Poisoned Chalice

The Spanish monarchy is in big trouble, and not even a young, handsome new king may be able to do anything about it.

If Queen Elizabeth II famously had an annus horribilis, King Juan Carlos's announcement on Monday, June 2, that he is to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Felipe, comes after three spine-tingling years in which a series of scandals and mishaps have seen the Spanish royal family's star fall from a lofty position far above the riff-raff of common politics to the gutter in which virtually all of the country´s institutions now languish. Once the top-ranked institution in periodic polls by the state-run Sociological Research Institute (CIS), 2011 saw the royal family slump to a failing grade of less than five out of 10, for the first time. Its favorability score in last month's CIS survey was a miserable 3.72.

In a country where many on the left of the political spectrum made an exception in their republican worldview in deference to Juan Carlos's crucial role in piloting Spain's democratic transition after the 1975 death of the dictator Francisco Franco, it is hard to imagine a more hostile environment for the incoming monarch. The 46-year-old heir not only has to shore up evaporating support for the monarchy, but he has to do so at a time when virtually all of the institutions that brought about the country's late 20th-century renewal have been discredited.

Since tens of thousands of mostly young protestors known as indignados first took to the streets and occupied plazas across Spain in May 2011 and as the euro crisis and subsequent recession saw unemployment climb up to and stay above 25 percent, political parties, labor unions, big business, and the judiciary have all felt the tide of public opinion turn against them. Corruption and abuse of authority are perceived as standard practice among the country's elites. The ruling center-right Popular Party is mired in a slush-fund scandal centered on its jailed former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas; the main opposition Socialist Party and its labor union associates are under the microscope in their Andalucian fiefdom over misspent funds meant to help the unemployed; former National Business Association chief Gerardo Díaz Ferrán is in jail after embezzling his own bankrupt company; and the country's top judge, Carlos Dívar, had to resign from the Supreme Court after fiddling expense accounts.

So how did the royal family fall into this morass of ignominy? In 2011, the king's son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, became the focus of a fraud investigation after he and his former partner at the helm of a supposedly non-profit PR and event management firm were accused of channeling millions of euros in public funds into their own pockets via tax havens after overcharging regional governments for services rendered. The king used his televised Christmas address that year to underline that "no one is above the law," and both Urdangarin and his wife, Princess Cristina, were frozen out of official royal engagements. But they were not cut off altogether. Prince Felipe is reported to have urged a stronger response against the couple, but the king sought to protect his youngest daughter from the slow-moving judicial dragnet. Ultimately, even the hiring of defense lawyer Miquel Roca, one of the framers of Spain's 1978 Constitution, was not enough to prevent the couple's sumptuous Barcelona mansion from being seized and the infanta herself being questioned in a Majorca court as a suspect in the case.

By this time, Juan Carlos had also disgraced himself, falling in the middle of the night and breaking his hip, forcing him to reveal in April 2012 that he had been on a secret elephant-hunting trip in Botswana. The king apologized to the whole country for his frivolity but the damage had been done. Five surgical operations later, abdication seems a logical step for the 76-year-old. Crown Prince Felipe is repeatedly described as having been "prepared" extremely thoroughly; with the king frequently out of action, he has taken on plenty of the diplomatic load in recent years. But can the prince connect with the Spanish public? He can hardly expect to enjoy a moment like King Juan Carlos's dramatic public intervention when defusing the 1981 coup attempt against Congress.

King Juan Carlos's legitimacy came from deeds, pushing forward democracy under the noses of the remnants of Franco's fascist regime, and ultimately being recognized as head of state by the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978, when Spain's constitution was overwhelmingly approved by 88 percent of the Spanish electorate. Those great majorities have now vanished from the Spanish political scene. In last month's European parliamentary elections in Spain, the Popular Party's and the Socialists' votes combined did not add up to 50 percent for the first time since the transition. In the same elections in 2009, the big two had racked up 82 percent of the vote.

Many on the left, such as the leader of Podemos, a leftist party which came from nowhere to claim 8 percent in the European elections, are now calling for a new referendum on the monarchy. "This abdication will accelerate the decomposition of the political regime of 1978," Pablo Iglesias told the newspaper El País. "If the government believes that Felipe has the confidence of the people, it should be put to the test at the polls."

The monarchy isn't blind to this change in the political winds. In a speech broadcast on Monday, King Juan Carlos observed that the country's "economic crisis has left deep scars in the social fabric." He appeared to be acknowledging the fact that corruption and a lack of transparency can no longer be tolerated within any institution and that his son, a member of "a new generation which wishes to take charge," will have to do much better. But whether Felipe is the man that can quell a raucous political climate in Spain today is anything but assured.

As a prince, Felipe has studiously avoided controversy. He won't be able to for long, however. One of the biggest concerns the new king will face is the Catalan government's plan to hold a referendum on independence from Spain in the fall. The prince has learned to speak Catalan and will no doubt develop the royal household's recent and tentative experiment in online transparency regarding public funds. The question remains, however, whether in such a fragmented political environment such niceties will suffice to keep the monarchy safe. In a poll published earlier this year by the right-of-center daily El Mundo, barely 50 percent of the respondents said they were pro-monarchy, while a larger majority said Juan Carlos ought to abdicate.

And so he has. But the old king's gesture was not enough to stop thousands of indignados filling squares in Madrid, Barcelona, and other cities on Monday evening to demand a referendum on the future of the monarchy in Spain. The arduous but ultimately successful Spanish transition with which the reign of King Juan Carlos was once synonymous now seems to have reached the end of its cycle, with so many of the country's democratic institutions lying exhausted. Is Felipe VI going to provide a breath of fresh air or is he just a fall guy?

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images


The Biggest Losers

Meet the two hapless candidates running in Syria’s stage-managed farce of an election to confirm president-for-life Bashar al-Assad.

BEIRUT — It's campaign season in Damascus, and the streets are festooned with posters of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president is shown in a suit, smiling and waving; in another poster, he appears in a military uniform wearing aviator sunglasses, staring off into the distance. He is even portrayed as a chess grandmaster: In one campaign ad, the scene opens with the United States, Israel, France, and the Arab countries of the Gulf playing one side of a chessboard, arrayed against Syria on the other. While the anti-Assad coalition sets up its chess pieces normally, the Syrian side is made up exclusively of multicolored pawns.

When Assad's enemies move a piece, the video cuts to a recent spasm of violence in the Arab world: the 2003 "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq, the 2006 war in Lebanon, and the 2008 Gaza war. But the Assad side fights back, taking a knight here, a rook there. As dramatic music plays in the background, the game starts to become intense: The Israeli player slams his hand down in frustration at a Syrian move, and the French player loosens his tie. 

Finally, the anti-Assad side plays what it believes to be its winning move -- what the video calls the "2011 war on Syria." The Israeli and Arab Gulf chess players share an awkward high-five. Pieces start flying off the board, and the Israeli player, chuckling, moves his side's queen. Children's screams are heard in the background.

But then something changes. The Syrian side huddles, stacking their hands on top of one another -- they are finally going to work together. The camera pans down to show that this is no ordinary chessboard: The anti-Assad forces are confronted by dozens of rows of Syrian pawns, some of them painted in military camouflage, interspersed with squares occupied by the Syrian flag. "Strongest Together," the Assad campaign ad intones. 

The Syrian presidential election will be held on June 3, and it will end with Assad's re-election. The United States and its allies have already denounced the vote as a farce. For the Syrian regime, however, it represents an opportunity to showcase its expanding control over several of the country's urban centers, and to highlight its persistent support among segments of the population. The vote will only be held in regime-controlled areas, and the Syrian military has pushed hard over the past months to capture new territory and sign local truces with rebel groups ahead of the ballot. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham blocked citizens from leaving the city of Raqqa in order to prevent them from voting.

Across the border, tens of thousands of Syrians flocked last week to the Syrian Embassy in Lebanon, to cast absentee ballots in the election. The process showed a casual disregard for the rules of a fair vote: Volunteers shoved ballots into the hands of anyone who approached, and voters regularly cast multiple votes. However, that fact did nothing to dampen the Syrian regime's sense of triumph. 

"Syrians in Lebanon vote overwhelmingly for the will of the nation and the war on terror," crowed the headline in Syria's state-owned newspaper Tishreen. The voters "turn[ed] the electoral process into a national wedding," reported the Syrian Baathist newspaper al-Thawra.

Many of the Syrians who voted seemed to be genuine supporters of Assad. Others appeared to have been motivated by widespread rumors that if they neglected to vote, they would not be allowed back into Syria. But whether enthusiastic or coerced, voters at the Syrian Embassy outside Beirut all had one thing in common: They ticked the box under the picture for Dr. Bashar Hafez al-Assad, and ignored the images of the two largely anonymous candidates next to him. 

* * *

The two candidates challenging Assad, businessman Hassan al-Nouri and communist MP Maher Hajjar, have zero chance of being elected president. But as the first candidates allowed to run against an Assad in the family's four-decade rule, their positions shed light on the issues the regime considers open for debate -- and those on which it will brook no dissent. 

In interviews with Foreign Policy, conducted by a journalist within Syria, both candidates expressed their full support for Assad's effort to crush the insurgency against his rule, describing the armed opposition to the regime as primarily made up of Islamist extremists and foreign jihadists. But they also leveled sometimes frank criticism at Assad himself for what they characterized as his mismanagement of the economy and centralization of power within a small clique of supporters. 

Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri is a former parliamentarian and minister for administrative development. He currently heads the regime-tolerated National Initiative for Administration and Change in Syria, and also heads a business school in Syria. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said that regime figures had approached him to ask if he was willing to run, but denied they had offered him political incentives -- as a successful businessman, he said, "ten ministers would not be able to reach my salary." His campaign stands for economic liberalization, and his billboards boast the less-than-inspiring slogan "Upgrading Economic Legislation."

His biography published in Syrian state media and subsequent media reports says that he received a Ph.D. in general management from John F. Kennedy University, which is located in California. However, the university told FP that it has no record of his enrollment and does not offer Ph.D. programs. A website for the International School of Business Management, where Nouri sits on an advisory board, contains a biography for the former minister that provides an image of his diploma, which states that he attended Kennedy-Western University. This unaccredited, Wyoming-based university was the focus of a 2004 federal investigation that it was a "diploma mill" doling out degrees for minimal work, and was forced to close its doors in 2009. 

"The age of the sole ruler has come to an end," Nouri told FP. Assad's rule has resulted in the emergence of a "100 family economy" that controls the preponderance of the country's wealth, he said, while the middle class has collapsed.

Nouri framed his efforts to combat corruption and improve the country's economy as a strategy for strengthening Syria's struggle against both the United States and Israel. "The U.S. administration knows full well that there is no way to breach Syria militarily," he said. "The United States can only breach Syria socially, because of its scientific supremacy" -- which, he noted, Damascus can circumvent through internal reform and deeper cooperation with Russia. 

When it comes to political reform and the regime's ongoing crackdown on its domestic enemies, however, Nouri had nothing but praise for Assad. He heralded the country's new "modern and balanced" constitution as opening the door for political pluralism in the country, and said that the coming election would be "honest and democratic, in the Syrian way."

He slammed both the United States and the Syrian opposition as being on the verge of suffering a humiliating defeat. He accused Ahmad Jarba, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, of stealing more than $75 million from the opposition's coffers. "The coalition is done for now that corruption has seeped into it, and I am optimistic in achieving victory soon," he said. 

Maher Hajjar, the other regime-sanctioned opposition candidate, stands for the precisely opposite economic vision of Nouri -- and his rhetoric about combating the United States and Israel is perhaps even more strident than Assad's. Hajjar is a representative of Syria's fractious far-left movements: He joined the Syrian Communist Party in 1984, and later left it in 2000 to become part of the communist leadership in Aleppo. He then formed the Popular Will Party, and won a seat in parliament in the 2012 election on its electoral list. However, following the announcement of his presidential candidacy, the party contended that he was no longer a member. Meanwhile, the Syrian Communist Party -- led by longtime regime loyalists from the Bakdash family -- declared that it would support Assad in the presidential election.

In his interview with FP, Hajjar attacked American policies across the globe, arguing that aggression was baked into the U.S. political system. As he put it, Washington is "breathing through an iron lung structured by war and murder, in cooperation with international Zionism." 

Hajjar was even more hawkish when it came to the Arab countries of the Gulf, which have been key players in arming and funding the Syrian rebels. He said that if he becomes president, he would sever relations with these "regressive" states, and extend the Arab Spring by working to overthrow their leaders. "I will support liberation movements to topple Gulf regimes," he said. "The Arab liberation movement erred when it reconciled with those regimes instead of being their opponents."

Like Nouri, Hajjar is a critic of Assad's management of the Syrian economy. He accused the current government of haphazard policies, "improvis[ing] solutions for partial and daily problems" without an underlying strategy. Unlike Nouri, however, his solution is increased state control: He called for an economic policy focused on "social justice," which would redistribute a large share of corporate profits to the workers. 

Hajjar's billboards, meanwhile, are aimed at the Syrians who have seen their livelihoods and their homes destroyed over the past three years of war. Vote for him, they say, "In order to live with dignity."

* * *

Assad, meanwhile, has stayed above the disagreements of his opponents, launching a slick campaign revolving around the word sawa, colloquial Syrian Arabic for "together."

The campaign -- which boasts Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts -- portrays the Syrian president as an antidote to the chaos and instability that currently wrack Syria. The relentlessly optimistic message is that only Assad can return the country to security and prosperity. 

The campaign's recurring theme is that Syrians must come together to defeat their domestic and foreign enemies. The "Strongest Together" ad, where the pro-Assad chess team unites to defeat the anti-Assad coalition in the game of global politics, is just one example. In another campaign ad, titled "Together Against Terrorism," Syrians work together to knock down a graffitied wall and let daylight back into their homes. A third, called "Together We Rebuild the Country," shows hard-hatted workers collaborating to rebuild a wrecked neighborhood, then gazing up at the Syrian flag.

The campaign also touts Assad as the leader who can reverse the economic hardships Syrians have faced over the past three years of turmoil. In a tacit acknowledgement of the triple-digit inflation in the country, which has eaten into families' savings and put all but the most basic staples out of reach, the campaign tweeted an image of a Syrian coin sprouting in a pile of dirt, along with wheat and cotton. "Together the lira strengthens," the image says.

There is no doubt that Assad will win the election tomorrow by a massive margin. Whether he will convince Syrians to place their faith in the rules of official Syrian politics -- a chessboard on which Assad is invincible -- is another matter entirely. While the Syrian president's polished campaign is more than enough to defeat his two rivals, it at times slips into the sort of tone-deafness that led Syrians to revolt in the first place.

Speaking in the name of a candidate who inherited the Syrian presidency from his father and has relied on his family members to serve as the backbone of his regime ever since, his campaign tweeted: "Favoritism is one of the main causes of corruption."