As police helicopters hovered overhead, Spain’s new king rolled up to parliament in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce.
Felipe VI saluted Spanish troops lined up outside, as the country’s national anthem blasted from speakers. He wore a navy blue military uniform and a red sash, representing the highest rank in Spain’s armed forces. It had been bestowed upon him an hour earlier, by his father.
He ducked inside parliament, took an oath and was proclaimed king. It was the first-ever royal handover in Spain’s democratic era.
The 46-year-old Felipe is a fresh face for Spain’s monarchy, beset by recent scandals. One of the princesses is accused of embezzling public money. The outgoing king, Juan Carlos, has a 38 percent approval rating, in part because of a rather expensive elephant hunting trip he took to Africa two years ago, while Spain was mired in recession. One in four Spaniards is still out of work.
Felipe will have to deal with a wounded Spanish economy, regions that want to break away from Madrid’s control and dwindling support for the Spanish monarchy itself.
“Long live the king! Long live Spain!” lawmakers shouted during Thursday’s special joint session of parliament.
Despite that pomp, the ceremony was relatively no-frills. No foreign royals nor heads of state were invited. No golden crown was placed on the new monarch’s head.
Felipe’s mother, Queen Sofia, beamed from a parliamentary balcony. But his father and one sister were not present for that part of the ceremony.
“A renovated monarchy for a new age. I’ll work with energy, hope and an open spirit,” Felipe promised, visibly emotional, his voice cracking several times. “There is room for all of us in a united and diverse Spain.”
He ended his speech by saying ‘thank you’ in Spain’s four official languages: Castilian Spanish, Basque, Catalan and Galician.
The presidents of Catalonia and the Basque Country — both autonomous regions inside Spain that are lobbying for independence — attended the king’s speech Thursday but refused to applaud, according to Spanish media.
Felipe is a former Olympic sailor, educated at Georgetown University in Washington. He’s more popular than his father. But polls show roughly half of Spaniards don’t want the monarchy anymore.
Protesters have filled Spanish squares in recent weeks, calling for a referendum on the royal system. But demonstrations were banned Thursday in Madrid. A few brave souls in anti-monarchy T-shirts were arrested.
At a royal parade that followed the parliamentary ceremony, Felipe and his wife, Queen Letizia, waved to supporters from a convertible Rolls-Royce. Later they waved to supporters from a balcony of the Royal Palace, with their two young daughters and the king’s parents.
Along the parade route, which wound down Madrid’s wide Gran Vía, lined with police, many royal spectators talked quite openly about their ambivalence.
“I’m not against the monarchy, but I think it’s a bit outdated. Plus, their behavior hasn’t been great,” said Javier Gutierrez, a 31-year-old who works in marketing. “So lots of people are against them. They sell us this image of the king saving democracy, but that was decades ago. We needed a fresh face — though there’s a limit to what he can do.”
Experts say the Spanish royal family is keenly aware of its dwindling popularity. That’s believed to have influenced King Juan Carlos’ decision to step down.
“The timing of King Juan Carlos’ abdication is an effort to rejuvenate the Spanish monarchy before it’s too late — before the reputation is tarnished beyond a point of no return,” says Hamilton Stapell, a professor of modern Spanish history at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “So this change allows Spaniards to say, ‘Hey, maybe we can have a different future. Maybe things can be better.’ ”
Spain’s economy is hobbling out of recession. But the country’s national soccer team suffered two surprise defeats, and was eliminated from the World Cup on Wednesday night.
Spaniards are no longer the world champions of soccer, but they have a new king. It’s a new era for Spain, in more ways than one.