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.
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