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Prince William and Kate Middleton royal wedding: Do monarchies still matter?

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Indeed, Juan Carlos is a sort of guarantor of democracy and liberty for Spaniards, says Carmen Enríquez, a journalist who has chronicled the Spanish royal family for more than 15 years.

"If the king had wanted, that coup would have been successful," Ms. Enríquez says. "If he hadn't come out on TV to oppose it, the military would not have stepped down."

Spain's popular king is the official head of state, but never intervenes publicly in politics. (Although at a 2007 Ibero-American summit he famously responded to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who was interrupting a Spanish official's speech, by asking "Why don't you shut up?")

But unlike the British royals, the king's every move is not followed. Private news about the royal family is rarely aired, and when it is, it refers to the prince and princesses, never the king and queen.

Polls show younger generations don't share their parents' respect for the crown, even if support for a monarchic succession remains at around 70 percent. But the population still looks to the king to mediate the often sour division between right and left political parties that continues to divide Spaniards.

On the other side of the world – in Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan, for example – monarchies have ancient roots in religion and are deeply revered by much of their populations, even when they've played controversial roles in using their iconic power to unite their nations in times of political strife. Some critics consider them an ancient damper on modern democracy – particularly in the developing nations of Cambodia and Thailand – where showers of arbitrary royal largess can perpetuate the notion that power resides in a person, not the people.

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