MADRID — Spain’s King Juan Carlos told his compatriots Monday he had opted to abdicate to his son Felipe, arguing that “a new generation demands, with justice, the leading role.”
“Today, a younger generation deserves to come to the fore, one with new energy, willing to tackle with determination the transformations and reforms that the current situation demands,” he said.
His message to the nation was broadcast 2 hours after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced the king’s decision to step out.
“[Felipe] is mature, well-prepared and has the sense of responsibility necessary to become head of state and launch a new stage of hope,” Juan Carlos said.
Juan Carlos once said that he wanted to be remembered as an “honest king who did his duty.”
All indications are that he will do just that. But there have also been clouds for the monarch, who has reigned since 1975. More than other European monarchs, he had to fight for every scrap of popularity he attained.
Born in Rome on January 5, 1938, Juan Carlos was the son of Don Juan of Bourbon and Battenberg, the heir to the throne of the Bourbon dynasty, which had been overthrown in 1931.
When dictator Francisco Franco decided that, upon his death, the country’s monarchy should be restored, he picked Juan Carlos as heir. The 10-year-old boy had to return to a homeland he did not know.
He was educated in military colleges and at the University of Madrid, but seen as the dictator’s puppet. He was once pelted with tomatoes when touring Spain. His 1975 coronation was met with indifference.
Still, Juan Carlos won the hearts of Spaniards by championing democratic values, becoming a source of support for democratic prime ministers and thwarting a coup attempt in 1981.
During the coup, the king rallied loyal generals and ultimately gave a stirring televised speech to the nation, becoming one of the European monarchs to have had the greatest impact on his or her country’s modern history. The king was said to have turned Spaniards into “juancarlists” rather than monarchists.
“You have to earn your crown every day,” Juan Carlos told his son and heir, Felipe.
He did not forget the precariousness of his position, but maintained a relatively modest lifestyle, living in the Zarzuela palace, not much bigger than many a company chairman’s home.
Juan Carlos’ affable and easy-going personality helped to add a common touch to an exceptionally unstuffy monarchy.
A keen sportsman and lover of fast cars, the king was said to be at his best at social gatherings where his sense of humor could flow freely.
His relaxed style was counterbalanced by that of his more formal wife, Greek-born Queen Sofia. His three children — Prince Felipe and Princesses Elena and Cristina — shared in their parents’ popularity.
Thankful for the democratic freedoms, which it partly saw as the work of the king, the press initially treated the royals with discretion.
Thus, in 1992, an attempt to report on Juan Carlos’ alleged marital infidelities was quickly hushed. A failed attempt by Basque terrorists to kill the king shocked Spain in 1995. The weddings of Juan Carlos’ children aroused widespread popular enthusiasm.
But that protective aura has since ebbed, a trend that became noticeable when criticism emerged about a 2012 luxury hunting expedition to Botswana, conducted in the midst of an economic crisis that eventually left nearly a quarter of the Spanish workforce jobless.
After years of tamping down rumors of love affairs, media suddenly felt safe speculating about royal infidelities.
Juan Carlos apologized, but the wounds were reopened when Cristina was charged earlier this year with committing tax fraud and money laundering in connection with a long-running corruption case focused on her husband, former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin.
Next came questions about the opacity of the royal family’s finances, leading earlier this year to the introduction of set, publicized salaries for royal family members.
Nor was the king’s political role always appreciated. Separatist groups across the country have long targeted the monarch as a symbol of a country to which they do not want to belong.
There were also diplomatic missteps, such as the infamous 2007 exchange between the king and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who had just called Juan Carlos a fascist. “Why don’t you shut up?” was the king’s off-the-cuff response, seen by more than a few as a breach of royal protocol.
Health issues also might have played a role in Monday’s decision. Juan Carlos has had multiple surgeries in recent years, including hip replacements. However, even as his health deteriorated, the monarch had, until Monday, insisted he would not let them force him off the throne.
But none of the questions quite undid the king’s personal popularity. Through it all, Juan Carlos was cited as a role model for other European royals. He was said to know something that every royal family should remember: that kings are not born, but made by the people.
Photo via AFP
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