MADRID — King Juan Carlos, who led Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy but faced damaging scandals amid the nation’s financial meltdown, announced Monday that he will abdicate in favor of his more popular son so that fresh royal blood can rally the nation.
Although the monarchy is largely symbolic, Juan Carlos’s surprise decision may hold implications for a burning Spanish issue: the fate of wealthy Catalonia, which plans to hold a referendum on secession this fall.
Abdication in favor of Crown Prince Felipe, 46, is expected to bring constitutional revisions to guarantee that the new king’s daughter will succeed him. That could create momentum for further constitutional changes aimed at easing Catalan secessionist fervor, analysts say.
Juan Carlos said Felipe is ready to be king and will “open a new era of hope.” The son seems to have greater command over the hearts of his people: Felipe garnered a 70 percent approval rating in a recent poll compared with 40 percent for Juan Carlos.
The king said in a 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 northeastern region of Catalonia to hold a secession vote in November .
With Felipe set to become king, Spain is expected to change its constitution to ensure that his first-born daughter, Leonor, is next in line to the throne — in the event that Felipe’s wife becomes pregnant again and gives birth to a boy, who would become monarch under the constitution.
Analysts say such a move could open the door to political negotiations for additional constitutional changes, including demands by the leading opposition Socialist party to grant Catalonia more autonomy or special financial benefits to blunt separatist sentiment.
Juan Carlos came to power in 1975, two days after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco. He endeared himself to many Spaniards, in large part by putting down an attempted military coup in 1981, when he was a young and largely untested head of state.
As Spain’s new democracy matured and the nation transformed itself into the continent’s fourth-largest economy, the king played a largely figurehead role.
His popularity took a blow after royal scandals, including a 2012 elephant-hunting trip he took at the height of Spain’s financial crisis during which he 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 on suspicion of embezzling large amounts in public contracts.