King Juan Carlos of Spain became Europe’s third monarch in less than 14 months to abdicate yesterday, ending a colourful 39-year reign, which at the beginning saw him feted for steering the country from dictatorship to democracy, but latterly has been hamstrung by scandal. His son, the Crown Prince Felipe, will become the new king.
The 76-year-old said his decision, taken in January, was a result of his desire “to bring a younger generation with new energy to the forefront of affairs,” at a time when he recognised that Spain bears “scars in its social fabric” from its worst recession in more than half a century.
Spain’s younger generation, the King said, is “fully determined to carry out the transformations and reforms that the current situation demands.”
The news was declared by the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, in a special bulletin broadcast nationally this morning.
Mr Rajoy did not provide details of a timeframe for Juan Carlos to step down since, unprecedented in the era of Spain’s relatively recent constitutional monarchy, it will require the government to draft a new bill making it legally binding.
Images released by the royal palace showed the king signing a document promising his abdication, handing it to Mr Rajoy and shaking his hand.
In pictures: Reign of King Juan Carlos of Spain
In pictures: Reign of King Juan Carlos of Spain
1/20 King Juan Carlos signs his abdication
Spain's King Juan Carlos I signing the document of his abdication before he hands it to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (not pictured), at La Zarzuela Palace in Madrid
2/20 King Juan Carlos and Spanish Queen Sofia at the exhibition
Spanish King Juan Carlos and Spanish Queen Sofia at the exhibition of the 75th anniversary of the Spanish EFE News Agency in Madrid, 2014
3/20 King Juan Carlos meets Pope Francis
Spain's King Juan Carlos and Spain's Queen Sofia meet Pope Francis during the canonisation mass of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on St Peter's square at the Vatican, 2014
4/20 King Juan Carlos and his wife with Mexican author Elena Poniatowska
King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Sofia of Spain with the Cervantes Award 2013 winner Mexican author Elena Poniatowska before the Cervantes Awards ceremony at the Alcala de Henares University in Alcala de Henares, near of Madrid, 2014
5/20 King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia and their granddaughters
Spain's King Juan Carlos, Spain's Queen Sofia and their granddaughters Sofia (L) and Leonor (R) before the traditional Mass of Resurrection in Palma de Mallorca, 2014
6/20 King Juan Carlos of Spain receives new ambassadors
King Juan Carlos of Spain (C) receives new ambassadors at the Royal Palace in Madrid, 2013
7/20 King Juan Carlos with his family
(L-R) Spain's King Juan Carlos I, Queen Sofia, Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon, Princess Letizia, Princess Elena, Princess Cristina and her husband Inaki Urdangarin taking part in a reception at the Royal Palace after an army parade to mark Spain's National Day in Madrid, 2011
8/20 King Juan Carlos with Prince Charles
Spain's King Juan Carlos I (2L) and his wife Queen Sofia (2R), Spain's Crown Prince Felipe (R) and his wife Princess Letizia (L) welcome Britain's Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (3R), and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (3L) before a lunch at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid, 2011
9/20 King Juan Carlos with Queen Sofia
Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia wave as they appear on the balcony of the royal palace after the wedding ceremony of Crown Prince Felipe de Bourbon and Letizia Ortiz in Madrid, 2004
10/20 King Juan Carlos with Bolivian President Hugo Banzer Suarez
Bolivian President Hugo Banzer Suarez (L) and Spanish King Juan Carlos (R) review a guard of honor in La Paz upon the Spanish monarch's arrival in 2000
11/20 King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia laying a wreath
Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia wave to a crowd in Montevideo after laying a wreath at the monument of Jose Artigas, hero of the Uruguayan revolution, 1996
12/20 King Juan Carlos outside Cathedral of Santiago
King Juan Carlos of Spain waving as he walks out the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela after the Santiago pilgrimage mass in 1999
13/20 King of Spain Juan Carlos with Cuba's President Fidel Castro
Cuba's President Fidel Castro and King of Spain Juan Carlos wave upon the King's arrival to the Havana's airport in 1999
14/20 King of Spain Juan Carlos delivers a speech
King of Spain Juan Carlos delivers a speech at the national Assembly in Paris, 1993
15/20 Spanish King Juan Carlos with French President Francois Mitterrand
Spanish King Juan Carlos (L) and hid wife Queen Sofia (R) with French President Francois Mitterrand (C) and French first lady Danielle Mitterrand (2nd R) at Elysee Palace in Paris, during their official visit in 1985
16/20 Prince Juan Carlos receives dynastic rights
Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon (3-L), his wife, Princes Sofia (2-L), their son prince Felipe de Borbon (L) and his mother Maria de las Mercedes (R) listening to his father count of Barcelona Juan (2-R) annoucing he gave up his dynastic rights to his son Prince Juan Carlos in 1977
17/20 King Juan Carlos and Spanish dictator General Francisco
King Juan Carlos and Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco salute the crowd in Madrid in 1975
18/20 Prince Juan Carlos of Spain and his wife princess Sophia's wedding
Prince Juan Carlos of Spain and his wife princess Sophia of Greece in Athens during their wedding in 1962
19/20 Prince Juan Carlos with his wife
Prince Juan Carlos of Spain and his wife Princess Sofia of Greece in the 1960s
20/20 Prince Juan Carlos in Military Academy
Prince Juan Carlos of Spain in the Military Academy of Zaragoza between 1955-57
The abdication also comes at a complicated moment for the Spanish monarchy. Since 2011, the royal family’s previously unblemished image has been tarnished by lurid headlines emerging from a corruption scandal involving the King’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, and thanks to which his daughter Princess Cristina has also been questioned in court. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Matters worsened for Juan Carlos thanks to his 2012 elephant hunting trip to Botswana in the middle of the country’s worst recession in more than half a century. He later apologised, but a photo of the King standing in front of a dead elephant had caused too much damage. He was sacked as honorary president of Spain’s WWF, while reports that a long-standing female friend of the King’s, had also been at the hunting camp played yet more havoc with his previously unsullied image. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many cash-strapped Spaniards began to question their King’s playboy lifestyle in such hard economic times – or indeed the need for a monarchy at all.
By the end of 2012, the number of declared Spanish republicans had tripled to 37 per cent and the King’s uncertain state of health, which has forced him to undergo five operations in 18 months, only underlined the royal family’s seeming vulnerability.
However, when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced the King’s abdication on Monday morning, it was nonetheless described in some quarters as “a surprise”. As recently as last September, the King’s spokesman had firmly said that abdication was not on the agenda. Furthermore, the King’s health has improved so much he had commenced an energetic renewal of his public duties in the past few months.
However, the King’s decision, taken – by all accounts – by himself, was made before then, in January on the day of his 76th birthday and there has been no last-minute U-turn.
“He has been a tireless defender of our interests,” Mr Rajoy emphasised, “all Spaniards bear him a huge debt.”
He said ministers would hold a special meeting of cabinet to discuss the logistics of the abdication and added: “I’m convinced this is the best moment for change.”
Despite being hand-picked by General Franco in 1969 to continue his dictatorship, King Juan Carlos instead was jointly responsible, together with former Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez for overseeing the country’s transition to democracy. Backed by the King, Suarez set about the rapid dismantling of Franco’s authoritarian legacy, introducing universal suffrage and creating a new legislature.
King Juan Carlos was so determined to prevent the military’s return to power that in February 1981, he was instrumental in preventing a coup d’etat, after Civil Guards had taken over the parliament at gunpoint.
In the early hours of the morning, he appeared on state television to say categorically that the coup did not have his blessing. The uprising fizzled out less than a day later.
To older generations of Spaniards, therefore, Juan Carlos is regarded as a commanding father figure. For younger Spaniards, though, Juan Carlos’s battles to install democracy seem increasingly distant and the royal family’s annual budget of a reported €8.3m is questioned, rather than admired for being much smaller than most other European equivalents.
As Spain's new democracy matured the king moved into a largely ceremonial role, traveling the globe as an ambassador for the country. He has nonetheless largely been regarded as a stabilising force in a country where the Basque and Catalan regions have remained restive.
It is expected that when the prince ascends to the throne he will take the title Felipe VI.
The 46-year-old has a law degree from Madrid's Autonomous University and obtained a masters in international relations from Georgetown University in the US.
Felipe is married to Princess Letizia, a former TV journalist, and they have two daughters. Like his father, the prince spends the majority of his time travelling the globe on royal engagements.
He has been particularly engaged with trying to maintain Spain's influence over former colonies in Latin America, while seeking to promote the nation's international business interests.
News of his abdication had barely broken yesterday before pro-Republican groups were calling for a referendum on the royal family’s future.