Written by Raphael Minder
Majorca has long been a haven for the Spanish royals. Juan Carlos, the former king, and his family have their vacation palace on the island, and local business dignitaries even once bought the monarch a luxury yacht.
So it might seem odd that residents of the island town of Valldemossa, population 2,000 — where Juan Carlos holds the title of honorary mayor — were asked to vote in a straw poll last Sunday on whether Spain should retain the monarchy or become a republic.
The nonbinding poll, sponsored by a local political party, was held without an official census and at a makeshift polling station next to the food and handicraft stalls of Valldemossa’s weekend market. The removal of the monarchy was approved by 97- 25, with one person casting a blank vote.
Even if the vote was only symbolic, the organizers said it was important to include the monarchy in a broader debate over whether and how to reform the country ahead of national elections this month, called by the Socialist government after its national budget was rejected. At the same time, Spain is struggling with a secessionist challenge in the northeastern region of Catalonia.
“What really matters is that we’re now finally able to discuss openly the role of the monarchy,” said Dídac Alcalà i Villa, who represents the organizing party, known as “The Valldemossa We Want” and who is in charge of the town’s education and culture. Similar votes were scheduled for Sunday in several other towns on the island, following Valldemossa’s lead.
The Spanish royal family returned to the throne in 1975 when Juan Carlos became king two days after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco ended a long period of dictatorship. But two years earlier, authorities in Majorca, knowing of Juan Carlos’ fondness for sailing and their island, offered to convert a palace called Marivent into his vacation home, even though the property’s former owner had bequeathed it to become a museum.
Tourists now visit Valldemossa, on Majorca’s northwest coast, mostly to see its medieval monastery, where composerFrédéric Chopin and writer George Sand spent one winter in the 1830s.
In making Majorca his vacation destination, Juan Carlos “really made us famous and boosted our tourism economy,” said Francisco Oliver Morell, a retired gardener who said he voted in favor of the monarchy last Sunday. “Can you imagine Bill Clinton coming to Valldemossa without the king?” he asked, recalling the former U.S. president’s visit in 1997, when he vacationed with Juan Carlos and his wife, Queen Sofía.
The royal family’s relationship to Majorca was complicated by a landmark corruption case that centered on Juan Carlos’ son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin. The trial was held in Palma, the capital of Majorca, because the case started with an investigation into the financing of the city’s cycling stadium.
Juan Carlos, who was also facing health problems and whose popularity had been falling, abdicated in June 2014 in favor of his son, who became King Felipe VI. Urdangarin and his main business partner were eventually sentenced to prison for embezzling millions in return for facilitating sports events. Urdangarin’s wife, Princess Cristina, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but she was fined for her involvement in her husband’s businesses, and Felipe, her brother, withdrew her title of Duchess of Palma.
María Aguilar, a resident of Valldemossa, said she had voted to remove the monarchy. “I don’t see how the royal family is an asset when it costs public money and has now been found to be corrupt,” she said. “The monarchy has only been good for Majorca in as far as some of our politicians and businessmen probably got richer in return for lavishing favors upon the royal family.”
It is difficult to measure the current level of support for the royal family, particularly since the state-controlled Center for Sociological Research removed a question about the monarchy from its nationwide public opinion surveys in 2015. Under pressure from leftist politicians, the research center is now expected to reinsert soon the royal question in its surveys.
To fill the gap, supporters and opponents of the monarchy have conducted their own polls, with — perhaps unsurprisingly — differing outcomes.
A survey published last October by the leftist Podemos, the third-largest party in Spain, found that more than half of respondents wanted a referendum on whether to keep the monarchy. But another survey published in January by La Razón, a conservative newspaper, found almost three-fifths of respondents wanted to keep the royal family.
Ninona Mayol, who represents the conservative Popular Party in Valldemossa, had urged people not to take part in last Sunday’s vote, calling it “ridiculous.”
“I respect different opinions, but not when the only goal is to divide our society,” Mayol said. “We’ve seen in Catalonia how these things develop: You plant a seed in the minds of people and then end up with a huge conflict.”
Alcalà i Villa acknowledged that he had been inspired by straw polls on independence that were held across Catalonia, long before separatist political leaders held a referendum on secession in October 2017 even though it had been declared unconstitutional. Former Catalan separatist leaders are now on trial before the Spanish Supreme Court, accused of staging a rebellion in their effort to declare independence.
The fight over independence has split Catalan society down the middle, and in Majorca and the rest of the Balearic archipelago, where the Catalan language is also spoken, nationalist parties have been gaining votes.
“Even if our situation isn’t comparable to that of Catalonia, it could become so in a few years if we don’t put a brake on this,” said Xavier Pericay, a regional lawmaker who helped found Ciudadanos, a centrist party that has led the fight against Catalan secessionism. “The republicans and the separatists might appear to focus on different issues, but they are pursuing the same goal, which is to scrap anything that represents the power of the state,” he added.
Separatists and anti-royal militants also found common ground after Felipe stepped into the Catalan conflict in October 2017, accusing the region’s separatist leaders of “inadmissible disloyalty” after holding the referendum, which took place amid clashes between the Spanish police and voters. “The king made a decisive intervention in Catalonia, but that of course helped bring together those who agitate against the monarchy and those who have pushed for an independence referendum,” Pericay said.
Some voters in Valldemossa said they wanted to remove the monarchy as an outdated institution, but had no desire for Majorca to split from Spain. They also noted that people had already taken to the streets across the country in 2014 to demand a referendum on the monarchy after King Juan Carlos announced his abdication.
“Removing the monarchy is about having a modern state,” said Alcalà i Villa, calling it a broader issue “over which there is more consensus than any territorial question.”