Spanish king presides over final military ceremony

Spain’s Juan Carlos, who announced plans to abdicate last week, presided Sunday over his last military ceremony as king before he cedes the throne to his more popular son Prince Felipe.

Hundreds of onlookers applauded and chanted “Long live the king!” as the 76-year-old monarch, dressed in a brown military uniform, reviewed troops at Spain’s annual armed forces day ceremony in central Madrid.

The king, who walks with a cane after multiple hip operations, was flanked by his wife Queen Sofia, and Felipe, who wore a white navy uniform, and his wife Princess Letizia, a former TV news reader.

Felipe, 46, ascends to the throne amid smouldering republican sentiment in a nation with a towering 26-percent jobless rate which has fuelled growing discontent with the political elite.

Within hours of the king’s announcement on June 2 that he was abdicating in favour of his son, thousands of people massed in central Madrid and other cities to demand a referendum on the monarchy.

Thousands took to the streets again on Saturday, calling for a popular vote on whether it should be abolished.

Many waved the red, yellow and purple Spanish republican flag and brandished placards reading: “No more kings, a referendum”.

“I want to have the opportunity to vote to decide on my country’s political system, whether it is a republic or a monarchy,” said Oscar Hernandez, a 29-year-old teacher at the Madrid rally.

Nearly two-thirds of Spaniards, 62 percent, believe a referendum should be held “at some point” on the issue, according to a poll published Sunday by centre-left daily newspaper El Pais.

Among voters between the ages of 18 and 34, backing for a referendum rises to 74 percent.

If such a vote was to be held, the poll found 49 percent would prefer to have a monarchy with Felipe as king while 36 percent would support a republic. The rest were undecided or declined to answer.

– Scandals slashed popularity –

Spain only restored the monarchy in 1975 after the death of General Francisco Franco.

Rejecting calls for a popular vote, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy argues that Spain’s 1978 constitution — which established a parliamentary democracy with the king as a mostly ceremonial head of state — was supported by a great majority in a referendum at the time.

Felipe, 46, is due to be crowned, probably on June 19, in a joint session of parliament — whose members, both in the ruling party and in opposition, overwhelmingly support the monarchy.

No foreign dignitaries will be invited to his swearing in ceremony, a palace spokesman said Thursday.

A military parade is planned but no coronation service, he added.

Juan Carlos was widely respected for smoothing Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco’s death, most famously appearing on national television to halt an attempted military coup in February 1981.

But gaffes and a family scandals have diminished his popularity in recent years.

Many Spaniards were outraged to hear the king took a luxury elephant-hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 as they struggled to find jobs in a recession and the government teetered on the brink of a debt default.

This year his youngest daughter Cristina was named as a suspect in connection with her husband Inaki Urdangarin’s allegedly corrupt business dealings.

Felipe, a tall former Olympic yachtsman who has had a growing role in ceremonial events in recent years, has not been touched by the scandals that have affected his father and sister and his standing has risen even as the king’s popularity has dropped.

Juan Carlos is the third European monarch to abdicate in just over a year. Albert of Belgium left the throne to his son Philippe on July 2013 and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped down in April 2013 to make way for her son Willem-Alexander.


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