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Royal Pregnancy a Conundrum for Spain

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 27, 2006; 2:40 PM

MADRID, Spain -- Spain is talking once again about a royal pregnancy, with Crown Prince Felipe's wife expecting her second child. But the impending birth also has energized debate over scrapping the bias toward males in succession to the throne.

If it's a boy, the infant will leapfrog over his toddling sister in the queue to be head of state _ exactly the kind of constitutional slight that both of Spain's main political parties want to avoid.

"Why don't we drop the nonsense and reform the constitution once and for all?" wrote Jaime Penafiel, who is considered the dean of Spanish royal-watchers, after the pregnancy was announced Monday.

When the prince and his wife, the former TV anchorwoman Princess Letizia, announced the birth of their daughter in October 2005, the chubby, fair-haired Leonor was quickly hailed as a potential future queen, the first here by birthright rather than marriage in nearly 200 years.

But the Spanish constitution of 1978 stipulates that the first-born male always takes precedence in the line of succession, even if he has an older sister. Prince Felipe is heir to the throne now occupied by his father, King Juan Carlos, even though Felipe has two older sisters. Little Leonor is next in line, unless she gets a brother in May.

Shortly after taking power in 2004, the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said it wanted to eliminate this vestige of discrimination via a constitutional amendment and make the reform a priority.

However, the long, complicated process has not even begun, even though Spain's political parties say a modern country trying to eliminate sexism must start at the very top _ with the monarchy itself.

A cartoon published Tuesday in the newspaper El Mundo illustrated how Spaniards feel about Leonor's plight.

It showed a proud, grinning Prince Felipe bending over Leonor's crib to hear her first words. The baby yanks hard on his necktie and babbles: "Change constitution fast!"

In other European monarchies, such pro-male bias has been fading away for years.

Sweden changed its law in 1980 to let women inherit the throne if they are born first; Belgium did it in 1991. Norway amended its male-bias law in 1990, but at that point, Prince Haakon already was first in line and was allowed to stay there even though he has an older sister.

In Japan, one of the world's oldest imperial systems and home to a men-only rule on the throne, Emperor Akihito's two sons had three daughters but no boys, until Princess Kiko gave birth to one this month _ the first male heir to the throne in 40 years. This put on hold a succession crisis that had prompted a panel of experts last year to recommend changing the law to allow women on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Spain is expected to follow Norway and change the constitution, but not make it retroactive. In other words, even if the charter is amended before Prince Felipe becomes king, he _ and not his elder sister, Elena _ would remain first in line to succeed his father.

Zapatero's government insists there is no real urgency to changing the constitution because until Felipe actually becomes king, his children are not legally in line to inherit the throne.

The problem for Zapatero is the conservative opposition Popular Party, which opposes other constitutional reforms that he wants to undertake with the succession-rules change in a package deal. He is wary of addressing just the succession rules because it would look like a referendum on the monarchy.

These other reforms include modifications to the way the Senate is elected _ part of the seats are hand-picked by parties, not directly elected. And the conservatives now rule in the Senate.

Another would have the constitution make a specific mention of the rights of Spain's 17 autonomous regions. Here, the conservatives are furious because Zapatero has allowed the independence-minded Catalonia region to gain sweeping new powers that other parts of Spain lack.

© 2006 The Associated Press