(Corrects spelling of Letizia in fifth-to-last paragraph)
* King to step down for political reasons-royal source
* Announcement was delayed until after European elections
* Once popular king lost public support in recent years
* Prince Felipe held in greater public esteem
By Rodrigo De Miguel and Elisabeth O'Leary
MADRID, June 2 Spain's King Juan Carlos said on
Monday he would abdicate in favour of his son Prince Felipe,
aiming 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 once popular 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 public
support. Polls show greater support for the low-key Felipe, 46,
who has not been tarnished by the corruption allegations.
The king's younger daughter, Princess Cristina, and her
husband, Inaki Urdangarin, are under investigation and a judge
is expected to decide soon whether to put Urdangarin on trial on
charges of embezzling 6 million euros in public funds through
his charity. He and Cristina deny 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,
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 (PP) 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 long recession that
dented faith in politicians, the royal family and other
institutions. The PP and the Socialists, which have dominated
politics since the return to democracy, are committed to the
monarchy, but they polled less than 50 percent between them in
the recent election.
Smaller leftist parties Podemos, United Left and Equo green
party, which together took 20 percent in the European vote, all
called on Monday 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
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 the PP
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 and I believe the decision
has been made in this context," said Rafael Rubio,
constitutional expert at Madrid's Complutense University.
A PRINCE FOR NEW TIMES
There has been media speculation over an abdication since
Sixty-two percent of Spaniards were in favour 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 has a lot more energy to do the job," said Alfonso
Romero, 36, a student.
Political analysts speculated Felipe may try to seek
dialogue between Rajoy and Catalan President Artur Mas, who is
leading a movement to break away from Spain. But Mas said on
Monday that Felipe's taking the throne would not dissuade him
from trying to hold a referendum on independence in November.
The prince, who has had a growing role in ceremonial events
in the past year, is seen as more practical and in tune with
current affairs than Juan Carlos, a jovial skier and sailor once
beloved for his common touch and seen as much more accessible
than the older generations of British royals.
Juan Carlos will be the second European monarch to abdicate
in just over a year. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped
down in April 2013 to make way for her son Willem-Alexander.
Felipe married divorced journalist Letizia Ortiz in 2004 and
they have two daughters. The royal family began a Twitter feed
(@CasaReal) on their tenth wedding anniversary, May 21, with
tweets on both Juan Carlos and Felipe's weekend visit to El
Salvador for the swearing in of President Salvador Sanchez
The prince was in Spain on Monday but had no official events
planned until Tuesday when he is scheduled to appear with the
king at the El Escorial monastery and former royal palace.
As king, Felipe will be Spain's head of state, representing
the country at summits, official visits and in meetings with
Even if he can win Spaniards over, he will continue to face
a sense that the country does not need a king.
"I'm not a monarchist and don't have a high opinion of
them," said Maria Luisa Villaseca, a retired public employee
visiting the medieval city of Toledo. "I think they should call
a referendum and ask citizens what they want."
(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Sarah Morris, Adres
Gonzalez, Paul Day and Blanca Rodriguez; Writing by Fiona Ortiz;
Editing by Philippa Fletcher)