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New era as reign ends in Spain

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Spanish King Juan Carlos I abdicates in favour of his son Prince Felipe. King Juan Carlos who is 76, has ruled since 1975. Getty Images

Spanish King Juan Carlos I abdicates in favour of his son Prince Felipe. King Juan Carlos who is 76, has ruled since 1975. Getty Images

Princess Letizia. Photo: Enrique Calvo

Princess Letizia. Photo: Enrique Calvo

Spain's King Juan Carlos signs his abdication at the Zarzuela Palace REUTERS/Spanish Royal House/Handout

Spain's King Juan Carlos signs his abdication at the Zarzuela Palace REUTERS/Spanish Royal House/Handout

Prince Felipe, heir to the throne. Photo: Dany Virgili

Prince Felipe, heir to the throne. Photo: Dany Virgili

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Spanish King Juan Carlos I abdicates in favour of his son Prince Felipe. King Juan Carlos who is 76, has ruled since 1975. Getty Images

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 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, Inaki 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 yesterday morning, it was nonetheless described in some quarters as "a surprise".

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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 yesterday morning, "all Spaniards bear him a huge debt."

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.

News of his abdication had barely broken yesterday before pro-Republican groups were calling for a referendum on the royal family's future. (© Independent News Service)


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