Updated: Tuesday, 14 January 2014 12:22 | By Agence France-Presse

Spanish prince's star rises as monarchy stumbles

As Spain's royal family reels from scandals and its elderly king leans on crutches after numerous operations, one figure is standing tall, offering the monarchy hope: heir apparent Prince Felipe.


Spanish prince's star rises as monarchy stumbles

Spain's King Juan Carlos (R) and Prince Felipe attend a ceremony at the Royal Palace in Madrid in 2012

Tall and imposing, but said to be warm and approachable by those who meet him, the 45-year-old heir has won the fondness of Spaniards even as they increasingly turn against his father, 76-year-old King Juan Carlos.

A blue-eyed former Olympic yachtsman, Felipe remains untainted by corruption scandals affecting his sister and brother-in-law, making him the family's best hope of surviving a plunge in its popularity.

"He is considered to be someone who is very well prepared and who in his public appearances transmits an image of professionalism, who is not involved in any conflict and does not generate controversy," said Jose Miguel de Elias, director of polling agency Sigma Dos.

Its latest opinion survey on the royals showed the number of people with a high or very high opinion of the prince rose four percentage points over 2013 to 66 percent.

General support for the monarchy as an institution, however, fell below half for the first time to 49.9 percent, according to the poll published this month in the daily El Mundo.

The number of people with a favourable opinion of King Juan Carlos fell nine points over 2013 to 41 percent.

Juan Carlos won broad respect for helping steer Spain to democracy after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975, but his popularity has plunged over the past three years.

The fall from grace is largely because of a corruption scandal centred on his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin -- husband of Felipe's elder sister Cristina.

It was worsened by a luxury elephant-hunting trip the king made to Africa in 2012 as his subjects suffered in a job-destroying recession.

These controversies and the sight of the king looking frail on crutches in his rare public appearances, have raised debate about the future of his reign.

But they have not damaged Felipe.

"People clearly associate the monarchy in Spain with King Juan Carlos," de Elias told AFP.

"The final responsibility for the way the Urdangarin case is handled is the king's, not the prince's, so the prince has not been tainted by this situation."

Olympic envoy with flawless English

Felipe has avoided being seen with in public with Cristina, 48, and her husband since the corruption scandal erupted in 2010.

A judge has summoned Cristina to appear in court on February 8 as a suspect over tax and money-laundering crimes, a first for a direct relative of the monarch.

She has been linked to the business affairs of Urdangarin, who is under investigation for alleged embezzlement of public funds.

Felipe has meanwhile taken over most public functions from his father, who has undergone surgery nine times in less than four years.

In September, the prince impressed with a presentation in flawless English to the International Olympic Committee, in support of Madrid's doomed bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

His contribution was overshadowed however by Madrid's mayor, Ana Botella, who was lampooned for her curious delivery in English and her corny portrayal of Spain as the country of "cafe con leche".

"The prince, in comparison with other political leaders, is the only one who unites everyone," Fermin J. Urbiola, a journalist who has written several books on the king, told AFP.

"We saw this during Madrid's bid for the 2020 Olympics, how everyone was united and proud of him. That did not happen with other leaders."

The following month, Felipe presided over Spain's national day celebrations for the first time while Juan Carlos recovered from one of a series of hip operations.

Over half of Spaniards, 56 percent, believe the prince could restore the monarchy's prestige if he took over as king from his father, according to the Sigma Dos poll. 

Only 23 percent felt the king could improve the royals' standing.

For a prince, Felipe is seen as leading a relatively modest lifestyle with his wife Letizia, a former television news anchor, and their two daughters.

Darlings of the celebrity magazines, they have frequently been spotted taking their children to school and at middle-class shopping malls.

While Felipe appears more low-key than his father, who is known for his jovial air and fondness for hunting, the prince is said to strike up conversation easily with those he meets.

"He makes a good impression because he is very tall, he dresses elegantly and is very polite but at the same time he is warm, he puts you at ease," said Carlos Moreno Saiz, 39, who met the prince at a recent reception for public workers.

"I think he has the people skills to be king."

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