Madrid: Spain's King Juan Carlos said on Monday he would abdicate in favour of his more popular son Prince Felipe in an apparent bid 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 throne.
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 recent years.
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.
The king's younger daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, are under investigation in a corruption case. A judge in Palma de Mallorca is expected to decide soon whether to put Urdangarin on trial on charges of embezzling 6 million euros in public funds through his charity. Both he and Cristina deny any 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, Rajoy said.
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 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 difficult and long recession that has seen faith in politicians, the royal family and other institutions all dwindle.
Smaller leftist parties Podemos, United Left and Equo green party, which between them took 20 percent of votes in the recent election, 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.
The low-key Felipe has had an increasingly important role in ceremonial events in the past year and has not been stained by the corruption case involving his sister and her husband.
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 Rajoy's People's Party 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 University.
A PRINCE FOR NEW TIMES
More and more Spaniards wanted Juan Carlos to step aside.
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, 46, 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.
He 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 British royals.
Felipe married divorced journalist Leticia Ortiz in 2004 and they have two daughters.
As king, Felipe will be Spain's head of state, and represent the country at summits, official visits and in meetings with business leaders.
Juan Carlos has been a key business ambassador for Spain, traveling frequently to the Gulf states, Russia and elsewhere to meet with investors.
Even if Felipe can win Spaniards over, he will continue to face a growing sense that the country does not need a king.
"This model (of a constitutional monarchy) made sense after Franco but it's not necessary now, and with so many people unemployed, why have we got a few privileged people?" said Miguel, a driving instructor in Madrid who declined to give his surname.
© Thomson Reuters 2014