Can Prince Felipe make monarchy popular?
02:23 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Spain's King Juan Carlos I abdicates throne after nearly 40 years

King's only son Felipe, a former Olympic yachtsman, to be sworn in within weeks

Georgetown-educated Crown Prince married former CNN+ anchor Letizia Ortiz in 2004

Spain's monarchy dogged by allegations of corruption and excess in recent years

CNN  — 

King Juan Carlos I is stepping down from the Spanish throne after nearly 40 years, handing power to his son after a series of scandals that has dented the royal family’s popularity.

The King said Crown Prince Felipe, a former Olympic yachtsman, has “the maturity, the preparation, and the sense of responsibility necessary” to serve as king and “to lead to a new stage of hope using his experience and the drive of a new generation.”

Prince Felipe, 46, is regarded as being untouched by the accusations of corruption and excess that have plagued the royal family as many Spaniards continue to struggle to find jobs and pull themselves out of financial ruin.

Princess Cristina, the Prince’s older sister, is embroiled in a tax fraud and money laundering investigation. She and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, have denied allegations that they diverted public funds from Urdangarin’s foundation for private use.

Spaniards have long held Juan Carlos, 76, in high regard for shepherding the country into democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. But his popularity took a hit in 2012 over a controversial elephant-hunting trip to Africa while the nation was mired in a deep economic crisis.

Prince Felipe, the third child and only son of Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, has been preparing to be king his entire life. He attended his father’s coronation before parliament in 1975, and reportedly stayed awake late into the night to witness what is considered to be the King’s finest moment – his decisive put-down of an attempted coup by a section of the military in February 1981.

Felipe studied international relations at Georgetown University in the U.S. and trained as a Spanish military officer. He was also a member of Spain’s Olympic yachting team at the Barcelona games in 1992.

The Prince has increasingly stood in for the King at a variety of official engagements in recent years as his father’s health has faltered.

Felipe also presides over the annual Prince of Asturias awards, prestigious accolades presented by his foundation for achievements in the fields of science, the humanities, and sports.

In 2004 Felipe married Letizia Ortiz, a famous former TV anchor who worked for Bloomberg TV, Spain’s state-run TVE, and CNN+, a Spanish CNN station that is no longer on the air.

The Prince’s marriage to Princess Letizia, a divorced commoner who left her own career behind to join the royal family, has made the monarchy seem more modern and accessible to ordinary Spaniards.

Letizia is “someone who has travelled on the subway, taken out a mortgage to buy an apartment in a Madrid suburb, and brought emotional baggage to the relationship,” according to Tereixa Constenla at El Pais.

The couple have tried to create a normal living environment for their family, according to El Pais, regularly taking their two young daughters to school and putting them to bed at night themselves.

And despite his family’s recent troubles, Felipe remains a very popular figure in Spain. Two-thirds of Spaniards see the Prince in a favorable light, according to a survey by El Mundo in December. The King’s approval rating in the same poll was just 41.3%.

Felipe’s biggest task, in light of the recent scandals, will be to make the royal palace more transparent. His family has a relatively austere reputation when compared with other European monarchies, but there has been increasing resentment in Spain over the cost of the royal family to the public.

The crown’s budget – more than €7.78 million ($10.5m) in 2014 – has been cut nearly 13% over the past five years, and the monarchy has begun publishing yearly breakdowns of its annual spending in an attempt to curb criticism, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph.

The overtures, however, have done little to silence a vocal minority in Spain who want to see the crown abolished altogether. After Juan Carlos’ announcement Monday, thousands poured into the streets to call for a nationwide referendum on the future of the monarchy.

Lawmakers have largely ignored those calls, and the soon-to-be-named Felipe VI is expected to be sworn in as king sometime after June 18 at a ceremony in front of Spain’s Congress.

CNN Wires contributed to this report.