MADRID (AP) — King Juan Carlos, who led Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy but faced damaging scandals amid the nation’s financial meltdown, announced Monday he will abdicate in favor of his more popular son so that fresh royal blood can rally the nation.
While the monarchy is largely symbolic, Juan Carlos’ surprise decision may hold implications for the burning issue of Catalonia, which is to hold a secession referendum this fall.
A constitutional revision is required to ensure Crown Prince Felipe’s first-born daughter will succeed him, and there was speculation other changes might be made to dull secessionist fervor in the wealthy northeastern region.
Juan Carlos said 46-year-old Felipe is ready to be king and will “open a new era of hope.” The son already has greater command over the hearts of his people: Felipe’s 70 percent approval in a recent El Mundo newspaper poll dwarfs Juan Carlos’ 41 percent.
Juan Carlos didn’t mention the scandals or Catalonia, or specify what issues his son must prioritize as the next head of state. He stressed only that Felipe will need to “undertake the transformations and reforms demanded by today’s circumstances and to address the challenges of tomorrow with renewed intensity and dedication.”
In his nationwide address, the king said he started making plans to give up the throne after he turned 76 in January.
Since then, Spain has embarked on a sluggish but steady economic recovery. Its biggest problems are a 25 percent unemployment rate and Catalonia’s drive to hold a secession vote in November – labeled illegal by the central government in Madrid.
Spain is expected to change its constitution to ensure Felipe’s daughter, Leonor, can succeed him, should Felipe’s wife get pregnant again and give birth to a boy, who would become monarch under the current constitution.
Changing the rule on succession could open the door for additional changes, including demands by the opposition Socialist Party to grant Catalonia more autonomy or special financial benefits to blunt separatist sentiment there.
“I think both parties could agree on a change to accommodate the needs of Catalonia,” said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a political and business risk consulting firm.
Still, Catalonia’s president, Artur Mas, said the king’s abdication would not derail his plans to hold a vote on succession. “We have a date with our future on Nov. 9,” Mas told reporters after the speech.
“There will be a change in king, but there won’t be a change in the political process that the people of Catalonia are following.”
The abdication was first announced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who said he hoped for a quick handover but did not specify when because the government must first craft a law creating a legal mechanism for the abdication and for Felipe’s assumption of power.
Rajoy said he would preside over an emergency cabinet meeting Tuesday to draft the law, which is assured of passing because his center-right Popular Party has an absolute majority in Parliament.
Far-left parties urged a national referendum to abolish Spain’s monarchy and called nationwide protests Monday night. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities demanding a vote on whether to rid Spain of its royal family descended from the Spanish branch of the House of Bourbon.
“Send the Bourbons to the sharks!” Republican flag-waving protesters shouted in Madrid.
On the throne for 39 years, Juan Carlos was a hero to many for shepherding Spain’s democratic and economic transformation.
His popularity took a big blow following royal scandals, including a 2012 elephant hunting trip at the height of Spain’s financial crisis when he broke his right hip and had to be flown from Botswana home aboard a private jet for medical treatment.
The king’s image was also tarnished by the investigation of his son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin on suspicion of embezzling large amounts in public contracts.
Juan Carlos’ youngest daughter, Princess Cristina, was forced to testify in the fraud and money-laundering case targeting her husband, an Olympic handball medalist turned businessman. She became the first Spanish royal to be questioned in court since Juan Carlos took the throne.
In his speech, the king played down his health issues and praised the crown prince.
“My son Felipe, the heir to the throne, embodies stability, which is the hallmark of the monarchy as an institution,” Juan Carlos said.
Felipe would presumably take the title King Felipe VI. He has a law degree from Madrid’s Autonomous University, obtained a master’s in international relations from Georgetown University in Washington and was a member of Spain’s Olympic sailing team at the Barcelona games in 1992.
He is married to Princess Letizia, a former television journalist. Their daughters are 8 and 7.
Like his father, Felipe has traveled the globe trying to maintain Spain’s influence, especially in former Latin American colonies, and to promote the nation’s international business interests. As head of state he would represent Spain at summits and other official events.
King Juan Carlos came to power in 1975, two days after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco. He endeared himself to many 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 and the country transformed itself from an economic laggard into Europe’s fourth-largest economy, the king played a largely figurehead role.
He was a stabilizing force in a nation with restive, independence-minded regions like Catalonia and the northern Basque region.
Juan Carlos melded the trappings of royalty with down-to-earth, regular-guy charm.
At a palace photo opportunity Monday afternoon, the king joked about the hordes of journalists covering the event.
“You’ve never been so interested in coming here like you are today,” he said with a smile, declining to answer questions about his abdication.
After the March 11, 2004, Madrid terror bombings, he showed he could grieve like anyone else. At an emotional state funeral for the 191 people killed in the train bombings, Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia went row-by-row through Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, clasping the hands of sobbing mourners or kissing them on the cheek.
His popular image changed during the financial crisis. After the elephant-hunting trip, many questioned whether a hereditary monarchy was needed and whether it was worth the cost in the face of deep austerity measures.
The World Wildlife Fund’s branch in Spain ousted Juan Carlos as its honorary president – a title he’d held since 1968 – saying the hunt was incompatible with its goal of conserving endangered species.
Juan Carlos took the unprecedented step of apologizing for his actions.
Associated Press writers Jorge Sainz, Harold Heckle and Raf Casert contributed to this report from Madrid and Brussels.