Spain’s Juan Carlos to abdicate after 40 years on throne

Challenge for successor Prince Felipe is to restore credibility of monarchy

Spain’s King Juan Carlos makes a televised speech yesterday  in the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid announcing his abdication. Photograph: AP

Spain’s King Juan Carlos makes a televised speech yesterday in the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid announcing his abdication. Photograph: AP


King Juan Carlos I, credited as a key figure in the building of Spain’s modern democracy, has announced his abdication after nearly four decades on the throne, as poor health and sliding popular support finally took their toll on him.

“I want the best for Spain, to which I have dedicated my whole life,” he said in a televised address to the nation yesterday. “I keep, and I will always keep, Spain deep in my heart.”

Juan Carlos (76) said he would step aside for his 46-year-old son, Crown Prince Felipe, whom he said is ideally prepared to become king.

“A new generation wants a prominent role, in the same way that the generation to which I belonged wanted that,” the king said. “Today, a younger generation deserves to move to the front line in order to confront with renewed intensity and dedication the challenges of tomorrow.”

Prime minister Mariano Rajoy made the initial announcement of the abdication, with a short statement in which he praised the king as “an historic figure, so closely associated with Spanish democracy that you cannot understand one without the other”.

Among the challenges for Prince Felipe will be to restore the credibility of the monarchy after several years during which its image has been battered by scandals, and its privileged status has come under the scrutiny of a people reeling from economic crisis.

A recent poll showed over 60 per cent of Spaniards thought the king should step down. The revelation in April 2012 that he had been on a lavish elephant-hunting holiday in Botswana when the Spanish economy was being battered by the markets and unemployment was soaring helped turn many Spaniards against him. It also led to harsh criticism from mainstream media and politicians for the first time in his reign.

Apparently aware of the damage the incident had done his image, the king made a televised apology. Meanwhile, the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, has been facing a lengthy, ongoing investigation into allegations that he embezzled public funds from a charity he used to head. Urdangarin’s wife, Princess Cristina, became the first direct royal to appear in court in February, as prosecutors sought to gauge her involvement in the case.

Financial scandals

Meanwhile, other scandals about the royal finances further undermined the monarchy.

With the king looking frail in recent months, having undergone five operations over the last two years, speculation that he would step down was rife.

But any hopes that the abdication announcement would sate anti-royal feeling seemed misplaced, as leftist and republican groups staged demonstrations across the country last night, calling for a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy. “Twenty-first century democracy demands that a binding referendum be called to decide if we want a republic or a monarchy,” said Willy Meyer of the United Left coalition.

Meanwhile, Catalan separatists reiterated their own calls for independence from Spain, arguing that the country’s institutions – its royalty included – were in crisis. They have been planning a referendum on a break from Spain for November.

But the king’s beleaguered image of recent years is a far cry from the figure who for decades won over even anti-monarchists with his commitment to democracy and youthful energy.

Consensus builder

Juan Carlos was crowned in 1975, immediately after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, who had prepared him for the role. But those who expected the young king to be a puppet of the regime were surprised as he set about helping build consensus between left and right for a new, democratic Spain.

His democratic credentials were cemented in 1981, when he boldly helped thwart a coup attempt by a group of civil guard officers nostalgic for the Franco era.

Since then, he has been a lauded ambassadorial figure for Spain, employing his networking skills and famous bonhomie to boost Spanish trade across the world.

Amid the tributes that poured in from politicians and public figures yesterday, tennis player Rafael Nadal summed up the affection in which many hold him.

“Nobody could have represented us across the world better than him,” he said. “Spain should be eternally grateful for what he did in his moment, for what he has done during these years and for how he has behaved.”