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Europe's royals enjoy strong, but fragile, support

[LONDON] The adoration felt by his people for the late king of Thailand was unique, but several modern monarchs have proved remarkably adept at maintaining public support for what many see as an outdated institution.

The death of long-serving King Bhumibol Adulyadej is being marked by an intense period of national mourning in Thailand, where he was seen as a stabilising father figure in troubled times.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who now takes over the mantle of the world's longest reigning monarch after 64 years on the throne, is also hailed as a constant, unifying presence.

She celebrated her 90th birthday in April with public approval ratings in Britain of 76 per cent - "ratings that politicians would die for", noted Professor Robert Hazell of University College London's Constitution Unit.

Many other European monarchs are also enjoying strong public support, with the notable exception of Spain - which acts as a cautionary tale.

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The former king Juan Carlos won widespread respect after playing a major role in the transition to democracy after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

But he abdicated two years ago amid a corruption scandal involving his daughter, and his son King Felipe VI is struggling to clean up the royal family's image.

"Each generation has to renew the contract between the monarch and the people. Monarchy cannot be taken for granted. It has to earn respect," Hazell said.

Denmark's Queen Margrethe II, who in 1972 became the first woman to take the helm of the oldest European monarchy, has managed to survive without any major controversies - and is wildly popular.

King Harald V, who has reigned Norway for 25 years, has similar approval ratings of 82 per cent.

But Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf has struggled for more than 40 years to shed his image as a car-mad playboy, and allegations of affairs have taken their toll on his popularity.

The latest poll, in March, found 65 per cent of Swedes wanted to keep the monarchy and 24 per cent wanted to abolish it.

In Spain, the corruption scandal surrounding Juan Carlos's daughter Cristina came after the king outraged Spaniards in 2012 by going elephant hunting in Botswana at the height of the country's recession.

"There is a paradox here," said Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

"On one hand they seem often like permanent fixtures but in today's climate of 24-hour news they are quite vulnerable to personal scandals undermining their popularity quite seriously."

Queen Elizabeth II has not always been so popular, suffering a public backlash over her apparently cold response to the 1997 death of Diana, the ex-wife of her son Prince Charles.

But her reputation recovered and now the next generation, Charles' son William and his wife Kate, are injecting a new lease of life into the institution "Monarchies frequently have to reinvent themselves, and find a new way of attracting popularity," said Mr Murphy.

"You could do so quite easily around the very attractive and rather glamorous figures of prince William and Kate."

In the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix won many hearts in her 33 years on the throne. But after abdicating in 2013, her 46-year-old son Willem-Alexander took over with a promise to be a 21st century king.

Outside Europe, Morocco's King Mohammed VI marked a break with his feared father Hassan II while providing stability at a time of turmoil as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and to the Middle East.

Although he retains overall power as head of state and the military, he takes time to meet his people - as well as to indulge his love of jet skis.


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