Spain's King Juan Carlos said on Monday he would abdicate in favor 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 76-year-old 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.
It was not immediately clear when the abdication will take place, allowing Felipe's assumption of power.
Felipe, 46, has had an increasingly important role in ceremonial events in the past year.
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.
The 76-year-old Juan Carlos oversaw his country's transition from dictatorship to democracy, coming into power in 1975, just two days after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco.
Far from being a mere ceremonial figurehead, Juan Carlos played a determining role in Spanish modern history when he stepped up as the first crowned head of state in 44 years after Franco's death.
He defied the hopes of the Francoists for an extension of autocratic rule. Instead, he oversaw the creation of a new system of parliamentary monarchy, with a new constitution that was approved by referendum in 1978.
Juan Carlos was credited with helping defuse an attempted coup in February 1981 by soldiers who stormed into parliament shooting and who held lawmakers hostage for several hours.
The king's appearance on television urging support for the democratic government was instrumental in blocking the attempt.
Family hurt by scandals
However, Juan Carlos' popularity has been deeply eroded by scandals swirling around him and his family.
He went on a luxury elephant safari to Botswana in the middle of Spain's financial crisis during which he broke his hip and had to be flown back to Spain for medical treatment aboard a private jet.
Further damaging the royal family's standing, a judge opened a corruption investigation in 2010 centered on former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, the husband of the king's youngest daughter, Cristina, who has also been accused of involvement, according to the French news agency AFP.
Both deny any wrongdoing.
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.
At the same time, Felipe's approval rating has risen.
Sixty-two percent of Spaniards were in favor 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 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 wed former television presenter Letizia Ortiz, in a glittering ceremony in Madrid's Almudena Cathedral in 2004 after several previous romantic dalliances, including one with a Norwegian lingerie model.
They have two daughters.
Ortiz, a 41-year-old divorcee, was the first commoner to come in line for the Spanish throne.
Some information for this report provided by AFP and Reuters.