MADRID — When King Juan Carlos appeared at a recent basketball game in front of thousands of subjects, he was greeted by persistent heckling and whistling. It was an unprecedented spectacle in a nearly four-decade reign over which the monarch has basked in the nation's love and respect.
What happened? The immediate cause is a corruption scandal engulfing Juan Carlos' son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, which has angered Spaniards in a time of crushing austerity. But the aging Juan Carlos himself has seemed increasingly out of touch with his people as they try to keep afloat in Europe's economic storm.
Urdangarin, married to the 75-year-old king's second daughter, Princess Cristina, is accused of using his position to embezzle several million dollars in public contracts assigned to a nonprofit foundation he set up.
The 45-year-old businessman, who denies any wrongdoing, faces questioning along with his wife's personal secretary. He gives closed-door testimony on Saturday before an investigating magistrate.
Juan Carlos, whose health has been declining along with his reputation, and the Spanish monarchy are facing one of their biggest crises ever.
"There is no deep-seated admiration for the monarchy as an institution as you'll find in the U.K. or in Holland," said Tom Burns Maranon, who has written several books about Juan Carlos. "The whole thing is almost a personal loyalty to the king. If the king's standing and reputation comes shooting down, then you're in a very sticky position."
The charismatic Juan Carlos, who took the throne in 1975 two days after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, is widely credited with helping the country usher in democracy — and with saving it by staring down a military coup in 1981.
Yet the stories of greed emerging from the Urdangarin case have deepened the sense that the royals are living large at the expense of a suffering nation. Juan Carlos was vilified last year after going on a luxurious African safari to hunt elephants while his subjects were being battered by economic woes and sky-high unemployment.
There is no major movement in Spain to eliminate the monarchy and restore a republican form of government. So far, only the leader of the regional Catalan Socialist Party has called openly for Juan Carlos to abdicate and allow his son, Crown Prince Felipe, to take the throne and bring the monarchy more in line with the 21st century.
A palace official said Friday that Juan Carlos has no plans to abdicate and that no plan exists to fast track the succession of Felipe. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of palace rules forbidding the official's identification.
But the sense of the king's popularity propping up the monarchy — a phenomenon known as "juancarlismo" — appears to be fading. A January poll showed about half of Spaniards approved of the king, an impressive rating — but sharply down from the three-quarters support he enjoyed a year before.
The king's health, meanwhile, has been a subject for concern over the past two years. He has had operations on both hips, a knee and for a benign lung tumor. On March 3, he will undergo back surgery, the royal palace said Thursday.
When Dutch Queen Beatrix, also 75, announced in January that she would abdicate and pass the crown to her eldest son, some wanted the same thing to happen in Spain.
But experts say the monarchies in the two countries are completely different. The Netherlands has a history of abdications for reasons of age, while in Spain it has been extremely rare.
Urdangarin is a former professional and Olympic handball medalist and the deals he landed were for things such as organizing seminars on using sports as a lure for tourism. Once presented to his countrymen as the perfect husband, Urdangarin has now become one of Spain's most detested figures.
A year after he first gave testimony, Urdangarin will return to a tribunal in Palma de Mallorca to answer more questions from investigating magistrate Jose Castro. Urdangarin hasn't been formally charged, but all indications point to a long and drawn-out trial that will keep suspicions of royal extravagance swirling.
The royal family has responded by barring him from official functions and pulling his profile from the monarchy's website. When both Urdangarin and his brother-in-law Prince Felipe attended the final of the world handball championship, which Spain hosted and won, they didn't even look at each other.
"He's been ostracized and separated from the royal family," said Burns Maranon. He said it will be a blow for the royal family if he's jailed but "even worse if he got off scot-free."
Meanwhile, the case is getting closer and closer to Princess Cristina, with her personal secretary, Carlos Garcia Revenga, set to make statements before the magistrate on Saturday.
Garcia Revenga hasn't been formally accused. The royal family has used this as an argument to keep him in his post as it waits for justice to take its course. But the question that arises is whether or not Princess Cristina knew about her husband's alleged activities.
"I don't see why Princess Cristina would be accused of anything," said Urdangarin's lawyer, Pascual Vives. "Her situation is radically different from those facing accusations."Comment on this story
Ironically, Urdangarin and his wife have the title of the Duke and Duchess of Palma, the same city investigating the case. Responding to popular revulsion, city hall said it removed the street name "Duques de Palma" — one of the municipality's most central thoroughfares — because of the "less-than-exemplary behavior toward the title."
It's only a symbol, but it reflects the loss of reputation the monarchy is suffering at an especially difficult time for Spaniards.
Associated Press writer Harold Heckle contributed to this report.