King Juan Carlos, who early in his reign faced down a military coup that threatened Spain’s return to democracy before seeing his family dragged into a corruption scandal last year, said he will abdicate the throne in favor of his son.
“A new generation deserves to come to the front line,” the 76-year-old king said today in a televised statement from his palace near Madrid. “My son Felipe, the heir to the crown, embodies the stability which is the monarchy’s identity.”
Spain’s cabinet will meet tomorrow before the parliament approves a law to complete the abdication process, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s office said.
Juan Carlos cemented his popularity with Spaniards for more than two decades when he resisted an attempted coup against the country’s nascent democracy in 1981. More recently, reports of an affair and a corruption investigation focused on his son-in-law undermined that public support.
“The king is convinced that this is the best moment for a change in the head of the state,” Rajoy said.
Felipe, 46, who carries the title Prince of Asturias, will join Philippe of Belgium, 54, and King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, 47, among a new wave of royals renewing Europe’s monarchies. The previous Belgian king, Albert II, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands both abdicated in 2013, the same year that Benedict XVI became the first pope to step down in almost 600 years.
“When the crown prince accedes to the throne he’ll be joining this new generation of monarchs,” Carolyn Harris, a royal historian at the University of Toronto, said in a phone interview before today’s announcement. “Felipe is currently quite popular. He hasn’t become embroiled in the corruption scandals.”
Harris said the U.K.’s 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II is unlikely to follow suit because she associates abdication with the constitutional crisis of 1936, when her uncle, Edward VIII, renounced the throne to marry a divorcee. That episode was portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie “The King’s Speech.”
Criticism of Juan Carlos has mounted in recent years as Spain was battered by Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and unemployment soared. Pere Navarro, leader of the Catalan Socialist Party, last year called on the king to abdicate while Gaspar Llamazares, a lawmaker with the United Left, said the monarchy should be abolished in favor of a third Spanish Republic.
Juan Carlos’s younger daughter, Cristina, 48, is being investigated by a court in Mallorca as part of a corruption probe in which her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, a former Olympic handball player, has been named as an official suspect, capping a series of health problems and setbacks for the monarch.
“When I turned 76 years old in January, I considered that the time had come to prepare in the following months for the person who is in the best position to ensure stability to take over,” the king said. “The Prince of Asturias has the necessary maturity, preparation and sense of responsibility to become the head of state.”
The king’s father, Don Juan, spent most of his life in exile during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco and gave up his claim to the throne to allow his son to be installed as head of state following the dictator’s death in 1975.
In the earlier part of his reign, Juan Carlos, who is also commander-in-chief of Spain’s armed forces, cut a very different figure from his present-day troubles.
After army officers stormed the parliament in 1981, Juan Carlos appeared on television in his uniform and condemned the attempt to overthrow the constitution. The conspiracy, robbed of any claim of royal support, fell apart by the following morning.
He won widespread support at home for a 2007 encounter with former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“Why don’t you shut up,” the king told Chavez, who had been hectoring then Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Juan Carlos later made light of the spat, giving Chavez a T-shirt printed with the remark at a meeting in Spain the following year.
The monarch’s popularity suffered in April 2012, when he made a televised apology to the Spanish people after it emerged he’d taken an elephant-hunting trip to Botswana as the country was struggling to avoid a European bailout. The incident also tainted his environmental work as president of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain.
Out of Step
The extravagant lifestyle that Spaniards glimpsed when details of the hunting trip emerged was out of step with a nation slashing social spending amid a jobless rate that hit 27 percent last year, the highest level in the nation’s democratic history.
Pressure on the monarch increased as the connections between his son-in-law’s business activities and his trip to Botswana emerged. The king was accompanied by Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German aristocrat who said in a newspaper interview that she had an “intimate friendship” with the king.
She also said Juan Carlos had asked her to find a job for his son-in-law Urdangarin and that she helped the Spanish government with confidential issues at the request of officials.
In his televised address, the king described his rule as “a long period of peace, freedom, stability and progress.”
“Today, when I look back, I feel pride and gratitude,” he said.