Madrid - Spanish King Juan Carlos will abdicate in favour of his son Prince Felipe, the nation announced on Monday, ending a 39-year reign that ushered in democracy but was later battered by royal scandals.
The 76-year-old monarch, crowned in November 1975 after the death of General Francisco Franco, is stepping down dogged by health woes and with his popularity deeply eroded by scandals swirling around him and his family.
"His Majesty King Juan Carlos has just informed me of his desire to renounce the throne and begin the process of succession," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in an impromptu announcement to the media.
He hands over the throne to 46-year-old Felipe de Borbon, a 1.98m tall former Olympic yachtsman, who has been relatively unscathed by the scandals that battered the rest of the family.
Frequently smiling but more reserved than his father, Felipe had long suffered from comparisons with the easy-going Juan Carlos, who played a historic role in Spain's post-dictatorship transition.
But Juan Carlos's image took a blow after he took a luxury elephant-hunting safari to Botswana in April 2012 as his subjects struggled in a recession, with one in four people unemployed.
Further damaging the royal family's standing, a judge opened a corruption investigation in 2010 centred on former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, the husband of his youngest daughter, Cristina, who has also been accused of involvement.
At the same time, Felipe's approval rating has risen.
Felipe wed former television presenter Letizia Ortiz in a glittering ceremony in Madrid's Almudena Cathedral in 2004 after several previous romantic dalliances, including one with a Norwegian lingerie model.
Ortiz, a 41-year-old divorcee, was the first commoner to come in line for the Spanish throne.