Monday, June 2, 2014 | 7:21 a.m.
MADRID — Spain's King Juan Carlos, who led Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy but faced royal scandals amid the nation's near financial meltdown, announced Monday he will abdicate in favor of his son, making way for a "new generation."
The king told Spaniards in a nationwide address that he first started thinking seriously about giving up the throne when he turned 76 in January.
He said Monday that the 46-year-old Crown Prince Felipe is ready for the post and will "open a new era of hope combining his acquired experience and the drive of a new generation."
The abdication was first announced 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.
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 an elephant-shooting trip he took in the middle of Spain's financial crisis during which he broke his right hip and had to be flown from Botswana back 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 suspected of embezzling large amounts in public contracts.
His daughter Princess Cristina in January was forced to testify in the fraud and money-laundering case targeting her husband Inaki Urdangarin, an Olympic handball medalist turned businessman. She became the first Spanish royal to be questioned in court since Juan Carlos took the throne.
In his speech the king did not mention any of the scandals, and played down his health issues.
Felipe would presumably take the title King Felipe IV. He has a law degree from Madrid's Autonomous University and obtained a masters in international relations from Georgetown University in the United States.
Felipe is married to Princess Letizia, a former television journalist, and they have two daughters.
Like his father, Felipe has traveled the globe trying to maintain Spain's influence especially in former Latin American colonies, while seeking to promote the nation's international business interests.
King 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 over the years and Spain transformed itself from a European economic laggard into the continent's fourth largest economy, the king played a largely figurehead role, traveling the globe as an ambassador for the country. He was also a stabilizing force in a country with restive, independence-minded regions such as the Basque region and Catalonia.
"He has been a tireless defender of our interests," Rajoy said.
Juan Carlos has melded the trappings of royalty with down-to-earth, regular-guy charm. The king is an avid sports fan and after the Madrid terror bombings of March 11, 2004, showed he could grieve like anyone else.
At an emotional state funeral for the 191 people killed in the train bombings by Islamic militants, Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia slowly went row-by-row through Madrid's Almudena Cathedral, clasping the hands of sobbing mourners or kissing them on the cheek.
But his patient work nearly came undone during the financial crisis, with people questioning after the elephant-hunting trip whether a hereditary monarchy was needed.
The World Wildlife Fund's branch in Spain ousted Juan Carlos as its honorary president — a title he'd held since 1968 — after deciding the hunt was incompatible with its goal of conserving endangered species. Juan Carlos took the unprecedented step of apologizing to Spaniards for his actions.
He recently said that he wanted to be remembered as "the king who has united all Spaniards."
King Juan Carlos goes down a path increasingly traveled by European royalty.
Last year Belgium's King Albert handed over the throne of his fractious kingdom to his son, Crown Prince Philippe. Two months earlier, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped down after a 33-year reign in favor of her eldest son, who was appointed King Willem-Alexander.
It was a break with tradition, but not as big as the decision early last year by Pope Benedict XVI to resign, a move that stunned Catholics around the world.
The two royal successions in Belgium and the Netherlands have been smooth and successful.
Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed to this report from Brussels.