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Spain's King Juan Carlos checks his watch while waiting for the arrival of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid on May 28. / Paul White, AP

MALAGA, Spain - Spanish King Juan Carlos always said that he would die wearing his crown but he unexpectedly stepped down Monday in favor of his son Crown Prince Felipe, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced in a nationwide television broadcast.

The abdication 39 years after Juan Carlos ascended to the throne, a period when the king oversaw Spain's transition to democracy in the wake of the nation's notorious dictator Francisco Franco, comes as corruption scandals have dogged the royal family, and as the monarchy has seen renewed calls for its disbandment.

Juan Carlos, who turned 76 in January, said that he was handing power to Prince Felipe, 46, in order to "open a new era of hope combining his acquired experience and the drive of a new generation." Prince Felipe, the monarch's only son, is considered to be well-liked.

"Younger people with new energies (are required) to undertake the reforms that the present juncture demands of us," Juan Carlos said, speaking of his decision to abdicate. "My son Felipe embodies stability," he said.

Some Spaniards said they had been waiting for it.

"This is part of an expected chronology (of events)," said Alberto Garzon, a lawmaker in the Spanish parliament and author of the book The Third Republic - about a future Spain without a monarchy.

Juan Carlos has enjoyed high popularity for decades but in the past few years his approval ratings fell sharply after a series of personal blunders. He took an expensive African safari during the height of the euro crisis. His daughter, Princess Cristina, has been indicted for embezzlement and her husband stands accused of tax evasion and money laundering.

While other European monarchs have come under scrutiny for excessive spending, including the British royal family, none have so far come under pressure to abdicate. The Spanish king's relinquishing of power drew no immediate response from royal families across Europe on Monday.

Even though the debate as to whether he should step down has raged for some time, most Spaniards expressed astonishment at the announcement.

"I always thought he would die with his boots on," said Gabriel Camino, 36, from Barcelona.

"It was a surprise but this was a good moment (for his abdication) as there are no elections in sight because that would have made things more complicated," said Javier Tajadura, a professor of constitutional law at the University of the Basque Country.

However, his departure comes during a period of upheaval for Spanish politics. The results of the May 25 European Parliament elections left Spain's two major political parties battered. Smaller parties won seats for the first time and more than 2.9 million Spaniards voted for political parties expressly in favor of eliminating the Spanish monarchy.

"(Both big parties) are afraid of those results as they are the only parties in parliament that are truly in favor of the monarchy," said Garzon, the author. "They didn't even get 20% of the total population and they see the writing on the wall."

As soon as the abdication was announced, Podemos, Izquierda Unida and other smaller political parties and civic associations began demanding a referendum to decide whether to ditch the monarchy.

Thousands of people later demonstrated to abolish the monarchy. More than 5,000 people protested in Barcelona, and about 10,000 in Madrid. Smaller rallies were held elsewhere across the country.

Although Rajoy said he was "convinced this is the best moment for change" he also said "the process will take place in a context of institutional stability."

Still, even with some in favor of eliminating the monarchy it is not clear if that is likely to happen.

"I think (any) referendum (on abolishing the monarchy) will be blocked in parliament, but I believe that societal pressure, with the demonstrations this evening, can be a very powerful symbol," said Garzon.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Game of thrones: Spain's Juan Carlos abdicates

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