MADRID – Former king of Spain Juan Carlos I, who oversaw the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s, told the royal family on Monday of his decision to go into exile amid a growing financial scandal.
The 82-year-old served as the Spanish head of state from 1975 until 2014, when he abdicated in favor of his son, Felipe VI, as his popularity shrank.
In a letter to Felipe published by the royal household on Monday, Juan Carlos said that after careful consideration, he intended to leave Spain “in the face of the public repercussions that certain past events in my private life are generating.”
He added: “My legacy, and my own dignity as a person, demands it of me.”
“A decision I make with deep emotion, but with great serenity. I was King of Spain for almost forty years and … I have always wanted the best for Spain and for the Crown,” he said.
The reactions to the announcement differed sharply across Spain’s political spectrum, with conservative and centrist parties expressing their respect for Juan Carlos’ decision and leftist parties saying the king emeritus’s move is an attempt to evade justice.
The leading figure of the left-wing Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, who serves as deputy prime minister in the Socialist-led coalition government, said on Monday on Twitter that Juan Carlos’s “flight abroad” was unworthy of a former head of state and that he should respond in the Spanish courts to allegations of wrongdoing.
He also said the ex-king’s decision leaves the monarchy in a “very compromised position.”
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez did not have an immediate comment Monday on Juan Carlos’s announcement, but he said last month that the accusations against the former king were troubling.
By contrast, Spain’s main opposition party, the conservative Popular Party, expressed its “absolute respect” for Juan Carlos’s decision and recalled the ex-king’s decisive role in the transition to democracy following the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
With this decision, Juan Carlos has shown his “loyalty to Spain, to the parliamentary monarchy and to King Felipe VI,” PP sources said on Monday.
Likewise, the center-right Ciudadanos party said it respects the decision and expressed full support for Felipe VI in his commitment “to the good name” of the Spanish monarchy, the constitution and democracy, sources with that party said.
Juan Carlos, who did not indicate in the letter in which country he would take up residence, said his decision would help his son fulfill his royal duties. Felipe thanked his father in response.
In March, Felipe renounced any inheritance from Juan Carlos amid growing questions over the origins of his father’s wealth and also stripped him of his annual stipend.
Swiss prosecutors have confirmed a probe into whether an alleged gift of $100 million made in 2008 by Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah to Juan Carlos had in fact been a kickback related to a Spanish consortium’s multi-billion-dollar contract to build a high-speed railway between the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina.
Prosecutors at Spain’s Supreme Court have also launched a probe into the allegedly opaque financial dealings.
He remains immune from prosecution for any accusations that predate his abdication.
Juan Carlos is giving up life at the Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid after 57 years.
Having been nominated by Franco several years earlier, Juan Carlos came to the throne in 1975. But rather than continuing the politics of the regime, the then-king backed the democratization of Spain and the creation of a new constitution.
He is widely credited with helping to peacefully end an attempted Francoist coup in 1981.
Toward the end of his reign, however, his popularity had tumbled and he was forced to apologize to the public in 2012 when it emerged he had traveled to Botswana to hunt elephants while Spain was in the depths of an economic crisis.
It is unclear how the former king’s decision to relocate abroad will affect his wife of 58 years, Queen Sofia.