After 39 years on the throne, King Juan Carlos of Spain announced Monday that he would abdicate in favor of his son, sparking a fierce public debate over whether he should be allowed to pass on the crown — or whether Spain’s monarchy should be abolished altogether.
Tens of thousands of Spaniards streamed into town squares in more than 60 cities across the country, just hours after the king’s surprise speech on state TV. Protesters shouted “No to monarchy! Yes to democracy!” and demanded an immediate referendum on whether Spain should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic after the current king steps down.
The 76-year-old monarch has been ailing, and his popularity has waned. His daughter, Infanta Cristina, is being investigated for alleged corruption. Juan Carlos himself sparked public outrage when he went elephant hunting in Africa two years ago while his country was mired in recession.
The royal lifestyle has not sat well with ordinary Spaniards, 25 percent of whom are still unemployed.
Whatever the Spanish monarchy’s fate, Parallels is taking a look at the highlights and lowlights of Juan Carlos’ reign.
1975-1978: Transition To Democracy
Born in Italy in 1938 and raised in Portugal, Juan Carlos was plucked from exile and personally groomed by the Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco to be his fascist successor. But when Franco died in 1975, Juan Carlos ushered in democracy instead. He is credited with shepherding Spain into its democratic era.
1981: Coup Attempt
On Feb. 23, 1981, some 200 armed Civil Guard troops stormed Spain’s Parliament, trying to seize power. They fired their guns into the air (bullet holes are visible in the chamber even today) and held lawmakers hostage for 18 hours. Juan Carlos took to live TV to denounce the plotters, and their coup subsequently collapsed. No one was seriously hurt. The king is credited with helping the then-fledgling, three-year-old democracy survive.
2007: Tells Hugo Chavez To ‘Shut Up’
At an Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, in 2007, Juan Carlos lost his temper with the late Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president had been repeatedly interrupting Spanish President Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, until the Spanish king intervened and told him, “Why don’t you just shut up?!” Juan Carlos even used the informal “tu” form of the verb, showing his lack of respect for Chavez. The video and audio clip spawned a meme, and some Spaniards still use the audio for their ringtones.
2012: Apologizes For Lavish Safari
Juan Carlos was forced to make an unprecedented apology after he was caught elephant hunting in Africa while his country was mired in a deep recession. The Spanish public only found out about the lavish trip after the king fell and broke his hip in Botswana and had to be airlifted back home to Spain. The safari cost several times the average Spaniard’s annual salary, and at the time, Spanish unemployment topped 25 percent (and still does).
The incident prompted the World Wildlife Fund to drop the king as its honorary president. To make matters worse, the king’s wife, Queen Sofia, was not with him on the trip — but another female companion, a German heiress, reportedly was.
2013-Present: Corruption Scandal
Juan Carlos’ daughter, Infanta Cristina, and her husband are currently under investigation for alleged tax fraud and money-laundering. They are accused of bilking the Spanish taxpayers out of millions of dollars. Cristina is the only direct descendant of a Spanish monarch to be named a suspect in a criminal case. The Royal Palace recently dropped the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, from the royal roster for official functions — and cut Cristina’s royal allowance down to zero.