Spain’s King Juan Carlos Abdicates for Son and New King Felipe IV

Spain’s King Juan Carlos, who led Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy but faced royal scandals amid the nation’s near financial meltdown, announced Monday he will abdicate in favor of his son, making way for a “new generation.” The king told Spaniards in a nationwide address that he first started thinking seriously about giving up the throne when he turned 76 in January.

He said Monday that the 46-year-old Crown Prince Felipe is ready for the post and will “open a new era of hope combining his acquired experience and the drive of a new generation.” The abdication was first announced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who did not say when the handover would happen because the government must now craft a law creating a legal mechanism for the abdication and for Felipe’s assumption of power.

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Juan Carlos has been on the throne for 39 years and was a hero to many for shepherding Spain’s democratic and economic transformation, but has had repeated health problems in recent years. His longstanding popularity took a big blow following royal scandals, including an elephant-shooting trip he took in the middle of Spain’s financial crisis during which he broke his right hip and had to be flown from Botswana back to Spain aboard a private jet for medical treatment.

Felipe would presumably take the title King Felipe IV. He has a law degree from Madrid’s Autonomous University and obtained a masters in international relations from Georgetown University in the United States. Felipe is married to Princess Letizia, a former television journalist, and they have two daughters. Like his father, Felipe has traveled the globe trying to maintain Spain’s influence especially in former Latin American colonies, while seeking to promote the nation’s international business interests.

King Juan Carlos came to power in 1975, two days after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco. He endeared himself to many Spaniards, in large part by putting down an attempted military coup in 1981 when he was a young and largely untested head of state.

As Spain’s new democracy matured over the years and Spain transformed itself from a European economic laggard into the continent’s fourth largest economy, the king played a largely figurehead role, travelling the globe as an ambassador for the country. He was also a stabilizing force in a country with restive, independence-minded regions such as the Basque region and Catalonia.

“He has been a tireless defender of our interests,” Rajoy said.

Juan Carlos has melded the trappings of royalty with down-to-earth, regular-guy charm. The king is an avid sports fan and after the Madrid terror bombings of March 11, 2004, showed he could grieve like anyone else.

King Juan Carlos goes down a path increasingly traveled by European royalty. Last year Belgium’s King Albert handed over the throne of his fractious kingdom to his son, Crown Prince Philippe. Two months earlier, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped down after a 33-year reign in favor of her eldest son, who was appointed King Willem-Alexander.

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