“What’s the point of the King of Spain?”, a Madrid journalist once asked. Juan Carlos I tried to answer the question by changing the face of Spain, contributing to the transition from dictatorship to democracy in barely a quarter of a century.
He was crowned king on November 22 1975, two days after the death of General Francisco Franco. At 37, he’d been preparing for this moment for some time.
He intended to reestablish democracy and be “The King of all Spaniards”, as he said in his first speech in Parliament.
Born in Italy in 1938, where his family had been forced into exile, Juan Carlos moved to Spain at the age of 10. He left school in 1954 and joined the Spanish military, graduating as a naval, army and air force officer.
In 1962 he married Princess Sofia of Greece. The couple had three children – two daughters: Elena and Cristina and a son, Felipe.
In July 1969 “El Caudillo“had decided Juan Carlos would succeed him.
When he became king, he quickly instituted democratic reforms.
In 1977 the first elected Parliament since 1936 was inaugurated by Juan Carlos. The administration drew up the current Constitution which was later ratified by referendum.
His charisma was reinforced in 1981 when pro-Franco military officers staged an attempted coup, taking over parliament. As commander-in-chief he ordered them to return to their barracks.
The economic crisis of 2008 brought the first signs of cracks in his popularity which had risen during the 1980’s.
The royal family’s luxurious lifestyle was in sharp contrast to the austerity measures which hit Spaniards.
The country’s territorial integrity was also facing a new challenge with the movement for an independent Catalonia.
Then a series of scandals raised their heads in 2012 .
In February, the King’s son-in-law and later his daughter Christina had to appear before a judge, accused of corruption.
Just two months later, the king’s elephant-hunting trip to Botswana was an even bigger scandal. A picture of the king, rifle in hand was splashed across the country’s papers and it angered many Spaniards.
Juan Carlos broke his hip on the trip and offered a rare act of royal contrition on his release from hospital in Madrid.
“I’m so sorry, I made a mistake, it won’t happen again,” he said.
Finally in 2014 after long years of recession Spain started to slowly edge out of the crisis, but the years of austerity have dented the faith in state institutions and in the Royal family.
On June 2nd Juan Carlos I announced his abdication. Although the move seemed to be sudden, it was well prepared. Behind the scenes the main political parties were working on the legal framework for a smooth succession.
After almost 40 years Juan Carlos is stepping down from the throne and leaves his son Prince Felipe to open a new chapter in Spain’s history.