MADRID - Spain's new King Felipe VI launches his reign before parliament on Thursday, sparking a day of celebration in the flag-filled streets of Madrid for a people smarting from their World Cup humiliation.
"Long live Spain! Long live the king!" cried early crowds outside parliament, where Felipe, a tall, 46-year-old former Olympic yachtsman, will be sworn in hours after he legally assumed the throne at midnight. As police helicopters hovered above, officers closed city-centre avenues and snipers deployed on roofs in a 7,000-strong security operation for the royal festivities.
Felipe leads a royal family tarnished by scandal after the 39-year reign of his 76-year-old father Juan Carlos, who signed his act of abdication with tears in his eyes at the Royal Palace the day before. Now he must try to rally a people stricken by a 26 per cent jobless rate and strained by secessionist stirrings in the northeastern region of Catalonia, which wants an independence vote on November 9.
"It feels like the end of a cycle," said Jose Antonio Gomez, who runs a soft drinks stall outside the old Royal Palace in central Madrid, where the new royals were to appear before the crowds on a balcony. "The Spain team were a disaster and have to renovate," said Gomez, after defending champions Spain crashed out of the World Cup in the first stage after a shock 2-0 loss to Chile.
"Now it is good to have a new king. His father did it very well and Felipe knows how to solve Spain's problems: Catalonia, the crisis. At least I hope he does," Gomez said. "Dethroned!" declared the front-page of the Barcelona-based daily El Periodico of Spain's World Cup ejection. "Abdication!" blared sports daily Mundo Deportivo. Thousands of red and yellow Spanish flags fluttered through the city, flying from buses and even covering police barricades.
Pots of white flowers were sprinkled through the city. Shops scrambled to sell T-shirts and fridge magnets commemorating the new generation of royals. Felipe received the red silk sash of the military forces' captain general from his father before heading to parliament where he will enter through doors flanked by statues of lions and covered by a giant red canopy with the state coat of arms.
The king will deliver his inaugural speech to lawmakers. With his elegant 41-year-old wife Letizia, a former television news presenter and the granddaughter of a taxi driver, the king will then be driven from parliament through the streets of Madrid. The royal couple will be accompanied by the former King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia when they appear on the Royal Palace balcony to wave to crowds below before holding a reception for 2,000 guests.
In keeping with Spain's tough economic times, festivities remain restrained, however, compared to other European royal coronations and no foreign dignitaries have been invited. Felipe and Letizia, already darlings of the media, have two photogenic blonde-haired daughters: seven-year-old Sofia and eight-year-old Leonor who is the youngest heiress to the throne in Europe.
A teary-eyed and infirm Juan Carlos, dressed in dark suit and pink tie, ended his reign with a stroke of a golden pen in the vast, tapestry-clad Hall of Columns in the Royal Palace. Juan Carlos, who walks with a cane after repeated hip operations, hugged Felipe under the palace's huge chandeliers, and briefly gripped his son's arm to steady himself in his final act as monarch.
The former king earned broad respect for guiding Spain to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 and for appearing on national television to thwart an attempted military coup in 1981. But he outraged public opinion in 2012 when he went on a luxury African elephant-hunting safari as Spaniards suffered at home from a biting recession. Felipe's elder sister, the 49-year-old Princess Cristina, has been named a tax crime suspect in a judicial investigation into her husband Inaki Urdangarin's allegedly corrupt business dealings.
Cristina's woes could present the first major challenge to Felipe, as an investigating judge in Palma de Mallorca ponders in the weeks ahead whether to send her to trial. But even as others in the family suffer falling approval ratings, Felipe's popularity has actually climbed. Indeed, a poll taken after Juan Carlos announced his abdication to a surprised nation on June 2 showed 76.9 per cent of respondents had a good or very good opinion of his son.