People wave Catalan separatist flags during an anti-royalist demonstration at Catalunya square in Barcelona. REUTERS/Albert Gea
Spain's King Juan Carlos said today he would abdicate in
favour of his son Prince Felipe, aiming to revive the
scandal-hit monarchy at a time of economic hardship and
growing discontent with the wider political elite.
"A new generation is quite rightly demanding to take the lead
role," Juan Carlos, 76, said on television, hours after a
surprise announcement from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that
the monarch would step down after almost 40 years on the
The once popular Juan Carlos, who helped smooth Spain's
transition to democracy in the 1970s after the Francisco
Franco dictatorship, seemed increasingly out of touch in
He took a secret luxury elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in
2012, a time when one in four Spanish workers was jobless and
the government teetered on the brink of default.
A corruption scandal in the family and his visible infirmity
after repeated surgery in recent years have also eroded
public support. Polls show greater support for the low-key
Felipe, 46, who has not been tarnished by the corruption
The king's younger daughter, Princess Cristina, and her
husband, Inaki Urdangarin, are under investigation and a
judge is expected to decide soon whether to put Urdangarin on
trial on charges of embezzling 6 million euros in public
funds through his charity. He and Cristina deny wrongdoing.
The king, who walks with a cane after multiple hip operations
and struggled to speak clearly during an important speech
earlier this year, is stepping down for personal reasons,
But a source at the royal palace told Reuters the abdication
was for political reasons. The source said the king decided
in January to step down, but delayed the announcement until
after the European Union election on May 25.
Political analysts said the ruling conservative People's
Party (PP) was eager to put the more popular Felipe on the
throne to try to combat increasingly anti-monarchist
sentiment, after small leftist and anti-establishment parties
did surprisingly well in the election.
The country is just pulling out of a long recession that
dented faith in politicians, the royal family and other
institutions. The PP and the Socialists, which have dominated
politics since the return to democracy, are committed to the
monarchy, but they polled less than 50 percent between them
in the recent election.
Smaller leftist parties Podemos, United Left and Equo green
party, which together took 20 percent in the European vote,
all called on Monday for a referendum on the monarchy.
"People are calling for political regeneration, a change in
the institutional functioning of the state after around 40
years of democracy, and they've started with the royals,"
said Jordi Rodriguez Virgili, professor of political
communication at Navarra University.
Spain does not have a precise law regulating abdication and
succession. Rajoy's cabinet was scheduled to have an
extraordinary meeting on Tuesday to set out the steps for
Prince Felipe to take over as Felipe VI. The transition will
likely be accomplished by passing a law through parliament,
where the PP has an absolute majority.
"We've been hearing continuously over the last few months on
the necessity for deep change. The feeling is that the
European elections have been a turning point and I believe
the decision has been made in this context," said Rafael
Rubio, constitutional expert at Madrid's Complutense
There has been media speculation over an abdication since
last year, but the announcement was unexpected.
"We were very surprised," Spain's tennis champion Rafa Nadal
said when asked for his response, adding that his country
should be grateful to the king for the role he had played.
"On a personal note, he was always very nice to me, very
warm," the world number one said at the French open in Paris.
"He made me feel comfortable each time we met."
Sixty-two percent of Spaniards were in favour of the king
stepping down, according to a January poll by Sigma Dos. That
compared with 45 percent a year earlier. Only 41 percent of
those polled had a good or very good opinion of the king.
Felipe has a positive rating of 66 percent and most Spaniards
believe the monarchy could recover its prestige if he took
the throne, according to the poll.
"Felipe has a lot more energy to do the job," said Alfonso
Romero, 36, a student.
Political analysts speculated Felipe may try to seek dialogue
between Rajoy and Catalan President Artur Mas, who is leading
a movement to break away from Spain. But Mas said on Monday
that Felipe's taking the throne would not dissuade him from
trying to hold a referendum on independence in November.
The prince, who has had a growing role in ceremonial events
in the past year, is seen as more practical and in tune with
current affairs than Juan Carlos, a jovial skier and sailor
once beloved for his common touch and seen as much more
accessible than the older generations of British royals.
Juan Carlos will be the second European monarch to abdicate
in just over a year. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped
down in April 2013 to make way for her son Willem-Alexander.
Felipe married divorced journalist Letizia Ortiz in 2004 and
they have two daughters. The royal family began a Twitter
feed (@CasaReal) on their tenth wedding anniversary, May 21,
with tweets on both Juan Carlos and Felipe's weekend visit to
El Salvador for the swearing in of President Salvador Sanchez
The prince was in Spain on Monday but had no official events
planned until Tuesday when he is scheduled to appear with the
king at the El Escorial monastery and former royal palace.
As king, Felipe will be Spain's head of state, representing
the country at summits, official visits and in meetings with
Even if he can win Spaniards over, he will continue to face a
sense that the country does not need a king.
"I'm not a monarchist and don't have a high opinion of them,"
said Maria Luisa Villaseca, a retired public employee
visiting the medieval city of Toledo. "I think they should
call a referendum and ask citizens what they want."