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Spain: King abdicates for his more popular son

Tuesday - 6/3/2014, 3:26am  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011, file photo, Spain's King Juan Carlos leaves after the official opening of the Parliament, in Madrid. Carlos plans to abdicate and pave the way for his son, Crown Prince Felipe, to take over, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told the country Monday, June 2, 2014, in an announcement that was broadcast nationwide. The 76-year-old Carlos oversaw Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy but has had health problems in recent years. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza, File)

ALAN CLENDENNING
Associated Press

MADRID (AP) -- Spain's 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 a burning Spanish issue: the fate of wealthy Catalonia, which plans to hold a secession referendum this fall.

Abdication in favor of Crown Prince Felipe is expected to bring constitutional revisions to guarantee the new king's daughter will succeed him. That could create momentum for further constitutional changes aimed at easing Catalan secessionist fervor, analysts say.

The 76-year-old Juan Carlos said Felipe, 46, is ready to be king and will "open a new era of hope." The son certainly has greater command over the hearts of his people: Felipe's 70 percent approval in a recent El Mundo newspaper poll dwarfs Juan Carlos' 40.

Juan Carlos didn't mention the scandals or Catalonia by name or specify what issues his son must prioritize as the next head of state for Spain. He only stressed that Felipe will need to "tackle with determination the transformations that the current situation demands and confront the challenges of tomorrow with renewed intensity and dedication."

The king told Spaniards in his nationwide address that he started making a plan to give up the throne after he turned 76 in January.

Since then, Spain has embarked on what appears to be a sluggish but steady economic recovery. Its biggest problems are a 25 percent unemployment rate and the drive by the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia to hold a secession vote in November -- one labeled illegal by the central government in Madrid.

Now that Felipe is set to become king, Spain is expected to change its constitution to make sure his first-born daughter Leonor can succeed him.

The royal family has said its wants the change to ensure she is next in line to the throne in the event that Felipe's wife gets pregnant again and gives birth to a boy, who would become monarch under the current constitution.

Analysts say that could open the door to political negotiations for additional proposed constitutional changes, including demands by the leading opposition Socialist Party to grant Catalonia more autonomy or special financial benefits to blunt Catalonian separatist sentiment.

"I think both parties could agree on a change to accommodate the needs of Catalonia," said Antonio Barroso, a London-based analyst with the Teneo Intelligence political and business risk consulting firm. He cautioned that the process could take months.

Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, declared that the king's abdication would not derail his plans to hold the vote asking Catalans whether they want to secede from Spain.

"We have a date with our future on Nov. 9," Mas told reporters after the king gave his speech.

In a statement issued later, Mas added that "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 Monday by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who did not say when the handover would happen because the government must now craft a law creating a legal mechanism for the abdication and for Felipe's assumption of power.

Rajoy, however, said he would preside over an emergency cabinet meeting on 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 called for a national referendum to abolish Spain's monarchy after the king made his announcement and said they would hold nationwide protests Monday night. They surprised the nation May 25 by polling much stronger than expected in the European Parliament elections, taking away seats from the mainline Popular and Socialist parties.

Juan Carlos has been on the throne for 39 years and was a hero to many for shepherding Spain's democratic and economic transformation, but has had repeated health problems in recent years.

His longstanding popularity took a big blow following royal scandals, including a 2012 elephant-shooting trip he took at the height of Spain's financial crisis during which he broke his right hip and had to be flown from Botswana to Spain aboard a private jet for medical treatment.

The king's image was also tarnished by the investigation of his son-in-law, who is being investigated on suspicion of embezzling large amounts in public contracts.

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