King-to-be Felipe, a new face for Spain's beleaguered monarchy

MADRID Mon Jun 2, 2014 8:08am EDT

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MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's next king, Felipe VI, strikes a low key contrast to his extrovert father, which could help him restore popularity to a monarchy battered by scandal.

The 46-year-old, married to a former TV news anchor, has not been implicated in the allegations of royal extravagance and corruption that tarnished the last years of the reign of his father Juan Carlos.

But the legacy of the 39-year reign of the once beloved king hangs over him and Spain no longer needs the monarchy for political stability as it did when his father took on the role to oversee the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced Juan Carlos's planned abdication on Monday, saying Prince Felipe was well prepared to take over.

"His preparation, his character and the wide range of experience he has been acquiring in public affairs over the last 20 years are a solid guarantee that he will be able to carry out his role," said Rajoy.

A royal source said the transition was for political reasons. A wave of scandals has eroded the royal family's credibility, leaving it looking decadent and out of step with a nation which has suffered a prolonged economic crisis.

Felipe is very different from his extravagant 76-year-old father Juan Carlos I and, while friendly in public, prefers an understated lifestyle.

That may help clean up the royal image if the palace is capable of assimilating a level of scrutiny unknown before the age of online social networks.

The prince has not been tarnished by a corruption investigation involving his brother-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, and a poll earlier this year showed 66 percent of Spaniards view him in a positive light.

But support for the monarchy has fallen and the privileged lifestyle of the royals has irked many Spaniards struggling to make ends meet.

Felipe Juan Pablo y Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbon y de Grecia - his full name - lacks the "common touch" of his father -- famous for giving bear hugs. But he is far more at ease with people than the British royal family.

"Felipe is grounded, well-informed, has good judgment but will follow advice" says Bieito Rubido, editor of monarchist century-old newspaper ABC.

"And something which is very important in Spain -- he's not earthy but he does know how to connect with people."

The soon-to-be-crowned king has led a low-key private life with his commoner wife, a divorcee former journalist, and two daughters, often seen at a cinema in central Madrid or taking his daughters to school.

Royal observers think his lifestyle is informed by both his natural character and his awareness of the times.

"Felipe will have to earn his place in the public's affection starting from a low point, no small task," said a veteran politician who did not want to be named.

He has taken pains to position himself as a believer in public service rather than one of the easy-living monarchs of the past.

"The current economic crisis ... requires serious reflection as to how the collective spirit can ... recover values that have, in recent times, gone astray," Felipe said in a 2012 speech, referring to "generosity, integrity, effort and excellence".

NO JOB SECURITY?

The Prince has had a lifetime's training for a position which has changed dramatically since dictator Francisco Franco designated Juan Carlos as his successor and put him on the throne, from where he oversaw the dark years of the transition to democracy.

But the role has undergone another huge shift in the past five years as an economic crisis brought free-spending Spain to a grinding halt and now more than one in four are unemployed.

Two thirds of Spaniards thought Juan Carlos should step down in favor of his son, according to a poll in newspaper El Mundo in January 2014, and most of those polled said the monarchy could recover its prestige if Felipe took the throne.

The royal source said that was when the king took the decision to abdicate, delaying the announcement so that it did not impact on the European Union elections held late last month.

Younger Spaniards are increasingly republican, and a poll at the start of 2013 showed 57.8 percent of young people rejected the monarchy.

The younger brother of the Princesses Elena and Cristina, Felipe was educated at a middle class day school close to his parent's residence in Madrid. His daughters, Leonor and Sofia, now both attend the same school.

Keen on sport, particularly sailing, he went to university in his home city and like most of Spain's ruling class studied law. He completed military training and then headed to Georgetown, Washington to study international relations.

The 6 feet 5 inches (1.97 m) tall prince was regarded as a playboy in his twenties. Two of his girlfriends were rejected by his parents as inappropriate partners, one because she had been an underwear model.

Felipe's greatest rebellion was to refuse to back down when his parents objected to him marrying Letizia Ortiz, a divorcee TV presenter whose grandfather worked as a taxi driver.

It may be proof that he has inherited something of his mother Queen Sofia's iron will.

He married Letizia in 2004 and some royal observers believe his choice was key to the survival of the monarchy. But since then the princess has reaped criticism for wanting to ring-fence her private life.

In an era when job security, perhaps even for the prince, is a thing of the past, the success of the monarchy will lie in Felipe's ability to convince younger Spaniards that the royal stipend can be justified.

(Edited by Fiona Ortiz and Philippa Fletcher)

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