A row has erupted in Spain in which the country's monarch, King Juan Carlos I, has been accused of meddling in politics.

Like Britain, Spain is a constitutional monarchy and the monarch, and the rest of the royals, are politically neutral and cannot interfere in the country's politics.

Spanish King 'meddling' in hunting law row

By Graham Keeley in Barcelona
The Telegraph

Spain's King Juan Carlos I is very popular amongst Spaniards.

King Juan Carlos of Spain has been accused of meddling in politics after interfering in a row over the Left-wing government’s controversial new anti-hunting laws.

The King, a keen partridge shooter, questioned a government minister about a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wetlands. Lead cartridges are said to cause the death of thousands of birds, mostly partridges, which ingest the pellets thinking they are food.

The popular 70-year-old King appeared to break a long-standing tradition of the monarchy staying clear of politics when it emerged that he had quizzed the environment minister, Cristina Narbona, about the law before it was approved by parliament in December.

He has also been in contact with the Spanish Hunting Federation, which opposes the law, prompting fierce criticism from ecologists. Theo Oberhuber, coordinator of Ecologists in Action, said: “It is lamentable that the King has used his influence and spent time which costs the tax payer to help his friends in the hunting lobby. Hunting is not something that many people in Spain are interested in.”

Joan Puig, of the nationalist Esquerra Republicana Catalana party, called for the state funding of the Royal family to be cut. “We do not want to pay from the public purse for the King to go hunting protected animals,” Mr Puig said.

Miss Narbona refused to answer questions about the King’s intervention, saying it was of a “private nature”. But she accused the hunting lobby of “distorting” the issue and using it for “party political” purposes.

Tens of thousands of hunters marched through Madrid yesterday to protest against the legislation, known as the Law of National Heritage and Biodiversity.

Around 500 greyhounds, which are used for hunting in Spain, were led through Madrid, alongside with falconers and archers wearing traditional hunting costumes and carrying a banner which read: “For the countryside, hunting and conservation”.

The march is intended to put pressure on Spain’s Socialist government in the run-up to the country’s general election next Sunday, when Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is facing a formidable challenge from the Right.

It is not the first time the King has become involved in controversy over hunting. Two years ago he was accused of killing a tame drunken bear while on a trip to Russia, but was later cleared after an investigation.

His love of bullfighting puts him at odds with his wife, Queen Sofia, a vegetarian who opposes la corrida and tries to dissuade younger members of the Spanish royal family from attending such events.

The Zarzuela - Spain’s equivalent of Buckingham Palace - denied the monarch had acted inappropriately on behalf of the hunting lobby. “The King is a hunter but also has a great interest in the environment, and this was his interest in the matter,” a spokesman said.

Another royal source added: “Hunting and politics shouldn’t mix.”

The King came to the throne in 1976 after the death of the dictator, General Francisco Franco, who had held power for 39 years.

He is credited with having helped to steer Spain towards democracy, in part by staying out of politics.

Meanwhile a clique of Spanish actors, singers and film directors have enlisted to boost the campaign by Mr Zapatero, including Penelope Cruz and her Oscar-winning boyfriend, Javier Bardem. They have established the “Platform for the Support of Zapatero”, to back reforms introduced by the government including gay marriage, speedier divorce and making religious studies optional in schools.

Pedro Almodovar, the Oscar-winning director who heads the artists’ platform, said: “I am in favour of Zapatero. My advice to anyone would be to vote with your conscience, your heart and remember what has happened (during the Socialists’s term in office). The prospect of the others winning is terrifying.”

Cruz has maintained strong support for Mr Zapatero’s anti-war stance and has previously criticised US President George W Bush over Iraq.