The Suspect Princess: Is This Good for Spanish Democracy?

Her father the King was a hero for standing up to a military coup attempt, but Princess Cristina’s contribution to Spanish modernity may be facing the judicial system

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Marcelo del Pozo / REUTERS

Spain's Infanta Cristina is seen during an official function of the Spanish Civil Guard in Seville on Oct. 7, 2008.

Social research shows that middle children, overlooked between the eldest and youngest siblings, tend to feel left out, take longer to find their way in life but also are better at networking beyond the family. When Princess Cristina of Spain married, her wedding was noticeably less lavish than that of her older sister Elena. As a girl, she lost her position as second in line to the throne when her younger brother Felipe was born, and then fell again in the succession rankings when her siblings had children. She also took second place to her own husband, who the media routinely describe as a former Olympic handball player, rarely mentioning her status as an Olympic athlete on the Spanish sailing team in Seoul in 1988. But Cristina de Borbon no longer has to worry about her place in history. On April 3, the Infanta, as princesses are called in Spain, became the first Spanish royal ever called to appear as a suspect in court.

When it comes to corruption, Spaniards are becoming difficult to shock. The so-called Gürtel case, which began in 2009 and is still ongoing, has seen dozens of leading officials in the region of Valencia charged with bribery and money laundering. Earlier this year, an investigation began into how the former treasurer for the now-ruling Popular Party managed to amass the estimated 38 million euros currently held in his Swiss bank accounts; that investigation, which alleges graft and tax evasion, threatens to reach the highest echelons of Spain’s government. And, since February 2012, Cristina’s husband, Iñaki Urdangarin and his business partner Diego Torres have been under judicial investigation for using their Nóos Institute, a purportedly not-for-profit organization that arranged sporting and tourism events, to embezzle some 8 million euros, mostly from government contracts won in part through Urdangarín’s influence.

(MORE: Spain’s Corruption Scandals: The Crisis of the Royal Family)

Nevertheless, the news that Cristina herself had been charged in the case came as a surprise, not only because the court had resisted doing so for so long, but because it seemed to suggest even to this jaded country that equality before the law might actually exist. At a newsstand on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the headline of every paper noted the event in bold face.  “I think it’s good that they’re treating her like anyone else,” says kiosk worker Angeles Sánchez. “It’s about time.”

Because of how the Spanish judicial system works, the demand that Cristina appear before court lies somewhere between a subpoena and what, in the American legal system, would be a full indictment. Currently, the court is only investigating the case, and the princess (like her husband), has been charged only preliminarily. She must appear in court with a lawyer, and respond to the judge’s questions, but it is only when and if he finds sufficient motive to move to trial that she and any other suspects may be fully charged. Still, the fact that a blood member of the royal family, which has been shielded for decades by institutions like the courts and the media, faces even preliminary justice has been heartening for many Spaniards. “It shows that our judicial system works,” says Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, a public communications consultant. “If you talk to anyone, they’re saying the same thing. This is a positive thing for our democracy.”

Since opening the case, the investigating judge, José Castro, has maintained that there was insufficient evidence to charge Cristina. But the latest batch of email correspondence handed over to the court by Torres (whose own wife is among the preliminary indictments) seems to have persuaded him otherwise.  In one of them, Urdangarin writes to his wife about a letter he is about to send to his Nóos associates saying, “Read this, and tell me what you think, please.

It’s because of messages like that that the infanta will appear in Castro’s court on April 27. Although that email, and others like it, does not suggest that Cristina herself was directly involved in running Nóos, it does suggest that she had knowledge about at least some of its activities. For that reason, the judge has decided to investigate her for “necessary cooperation” in a criminal act. In his decision, he notes that she sits on the board of Nóos, has a 50% partnership in one of her husband’s companies that has also been implicated in the case, and apparently consented that her name and title be used in order to give the appearance that Nóos’ activities were  “known by and enjoyed the support of the Palace.”

(MORE: Why Juan Carlos’ Reign in Spain Has Become a Royal Pain)

Not everyone agrees with the decision. Hours after Castro’s announcement, the palace released a statement saying it was “surprised by the judge’s change of opinion.” Today, Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, noted that the charges had produced “enormous concern” in the government, and lamented that they were “bad for Spain’s brand.” And the state attorney for anti-corruption is expected to appeal the decision tomorrow, citing insufficient evidence.

But on Twitter and Facebook, ordinary Spaniards celebrated the decision as a victory for justice. “I think we’re seeing signs that Spanish society is no longer passive or tolerant in the face of this kind corruption,” says Gutiérrez -Rubí. “I think there’s a kind of rejection going on now that historically, we’ve never had.”

Some of that rejection is directed less at corruption than at the monarchy itself. Although for decades King Juan Carlos and his family enjoyed high approval ratings, a series of scandals in the past year—of which the Nóos case is the most notable– has drastically deteriorated both his image, and that of the monarchy in general. In an attempt to save face after Urdangarin’s indictment, the palace cut the former Olympian out of its website, and retired him from official functions. Now that Cristina herself faces charges, the pressure on her to give up either her husband or her rights to succession is sure to grow.

“She has two options,” says Gutiérrez -Rubí. “Either she divorces Urdangarin because the role of infanta is incompatible with living with [an alleged] criminal, or she separates herself from the crown because although he’s made some mistakes he’s still her husband and the father of her children. But it’s either/or. She has to accept that for royals, the public and private are like oil and water–they just don’t mix.”

MORE: Spain Is Disgusted With Corruption But Can Anything Be Done About It?