Markos Kounalakis: Monarchs are ananchronisms but also have their places

The just-announced abdication of Juan Carlos of Spain is reigniting the question of the role of kings in that modern constitutional monarchy and around the world.

King Juan Carlos has played more than just a ceremonial role in the past. In 1981, he confronted the leaders of a military coup in his country and saved it from another dark era of iron-fisted army rule. He was post-Franco Spain’s savior.

But his abdication is no fairytale ending, as the once royal hero has turned to a zero due to recent palace scandals and a political tone-deafness acquired with his advancing age and failing health. His popularity continues to sink and the move to install his house’s next generation is a shot at reviving regal respect and majesty.

What Juan Carlos showed the world, however, is that kings can be critical for countries transitioning to democracies. They can be key to helping bridge societies from a traumatic past to a hopeful future. As figureheads, they can function as society’s connective tissue – literally embodying a nation’s tradition, continuity and cultural identity.

It is the reason that countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain looked to the houses of their sovereign past to find whatever vestiges of national identity remained.

In 1989, after the overthrow and execution of Romania’s despotic leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, there was an active movement to get King Michael to return from exile and participate politically. His role in overthrowing the fascist Romanian regime during World War II gave him street cred, but budding post-revolution politicians viewed him as a threat to their power and locked him out.

Whether King Michael could have changed Bucharest’s political trajectory is unclear. Romania still struggles with its history and societal development.

Crown Prince Alexander II of Serbia arrived in Belgrade shortly after Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2001. The new democratically elected leadership turned to its royal house to broaden its appeal and add to its legitimacy. Alexander II is a benevolent if powerless presence.

Alexander II’s family still harbors dreams of returning to the throne, as was articulated by his wife, Princess Katherine, at their wedding anniversary. In 2010, I attended that lavish Royal 25th Palace party in Belgrade along with titled royalty and a host of royal pretenders and exiles, all of them harboring a wish to return to their erstwhile kingdoms. It was a celebratory evening, but longing still filled the air.

Monarchies abound in this world; some are benign, others benighted. In mature democracies, a sovereign’s role is often debated in cost-benefit terms; for example, how many tourist dollars do royals attract? In countries where democratic rule is still a dream, monarchs can enjoy absolute rule and subjects often suffer.

The United States deals with them all as sovereign states and affords them equal status in the international community, raising most human rights or governance concerns privately rather than airing them publicly or too loudly. And while all might be well in Denmark these days, there are a few countries on the regal watch-list:

One is Thailand, where 86-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej just legitimized the military coup that has detained dissidents and journalists. He took a different tack than King Juan Carlos did in the 1980s, but anyone who wants to criticize King Bhumibol had better think twice because the Thai constitution prohibits it.

Another is Saudi Arabia, where oil spot-market followers and Islamic royal watchers closely monitor King Abdullah’s health. The price at the pump can be affected by a blip in the king’s well-being. As with every kingdom, succession is a sensitive subject, but in Saudi Arabia, being male has its benefits. There are no women waiting to ascend that throne.

In America, monarchies are a popular source of fascination, but mostly seen as an anachronism. They are misunderstood, regularly ridiculed, and often used to sell magazines or weight loss products.

Royal watching from here is a fascinating gawkers game, where the time between British royal weddings is filled with fluff like “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry,’ ” a reality TV show where American women go to an English castle for commoner canoodling.

The global variety of kingdoms and monarchs makes it difficult to paint with them all with a broad brush – some leaders are benevolent, a few approach philosopher-king status, but there are also a fair share of wastrels and layabouts. My favorite Kings these days are in L.A. and in the Stanley Cup finals.