Spain's King Juan Carlos said yesterday he would abdicate in favour 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.
Watch: Spain's King Juan Carlos abdicates to 'renew' monarchy
Juan Carlos, who helped smooth Spain's transition to democracy in the 1970s after the Francisco Franco dictatorship, seemed increasingly out of touch in recent years. He took a secret luxury elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in 2012, a time when one in four Spanish workers was jobless and the government teetered on the brink of default.
A corruption scandal in the family and his visible infirmity after repeated surgery in recent years have also eroded support.
The king's younger daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, are under investigation in a corruption case. A judge in Palma de Mallorca is expected to decide soon whether to put Urdangarin on trial on charges of embezzling €6 million (HK$63.4 million) in public funds through his charity. Both he and Cristina deny any wrongdoing.
The 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 said 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 elections 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 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.
Smaller leftist parties Podemos, United Left and Equo green party, which between them took 20 per cent of votes in the election, all called yesterday for a referendum on the monarchy.
"People are calling for political regeneration, a change in the institutional functioning of the state after around 40 years of democracy, and they've started with the royals," said Jordi Rodriguez Virgili, professor of political communication at Navarra University.
Spain does not have a precise law regulating abdication and succession. Rajoy's cabinet was scheduled to have an extraordinary meeting today to set out the steps for Prince Felipe to take over as Felipe VI. The transition is likely to be accomplished by passing a law through parliament, where Rajoy's People's Party has an absolute majority.
"We've been hearing continuously over the last few months on the necessity for deep change. The feeling is that the European elections have been a turning point," said Rafael Rubio, a constitutional expert at Complutense University in Madrid.
More and more Spaniards wanted Juan Carlos to step aside. Sixty-two per cent of Spaniards were in favour of the king stepping down, according to a January poll. That compared with 45 per cent a year earlier.
Felipe, 46, has a positive rating of 66 per cent, and most Spaniards believe the monarchy could recover its prestige if he took the throne.
Watch: King Juan Carlos, tainted hero of Spain's democracy, abdicates
Recent monarchs who abdicated
BELGIUM: King Albert II of Belgium, 79, stepped down on July 21 last year after a 20-year reign, the first Belgian king to voluntarily abdicate. He passed the throne to his oldest son, Philippe.
QATAR: The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, abdicated on June 25 last year in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim, 33, the first such recent transfer of power in an Arab country.
NETHERLANDS: Dutch Queen Beatrix, 75, abdicated on April 30 last year in favour of Willem-Alexander, after a 33-year reign.
CAMBODIA: Norodom Sihanouk, 81, abdicated on October 7, 2004, after being treated in Beijing for cancer. Sihanouk, who came to the throne in 1941, abdicated in 1955, in favour of his father, before becoming constitutional monarch again in 1993.
EGYPT: King Farouk abdicated in July 1952 during a revolution 16 years after his accession. His son, Fuad II, succeeded him, but joined his family in exile after the proclamation of the republic in June 1953.
BRITAIN: Edward VIII abdicated after only a few months as king on December 12, 1936, in order to marry divorced American Wallis Simpson, thus avoiding a constitutional crisis. Albert, Queen Elizabeth's father, took the throne under the name of George VI in May 1937.