MADRID - Spanish King Juan Carlos announced his abdication on Monday in favour of his son Prince Felipe, ending a 39-year reign that guided Spain from dictatorship to 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.
The king handed over a letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy formally informing him of "my decision to abdicate the Crown of Spain".
A copy of the letter and a photograph of the monarch handing it over to the premier was released on the palace's Twitter account.
"His Majesty King Juan Carlos has just informed me of his desire to renounce the throne and begin the process of succession," Rajoy said in an impromptu announcement to the media.
"The reason for the king's decision is something that he wants to communicate personally to the Spanish people this morning," the prime minister said.
Juan Carlos hands over the throne to 46-year-old Felipe de Borbon, Prince of Asturias, a 1.98-metre (six foot six inches) tall, former Olympic yachtsman, who has been relatively unscathed by the scandals that battered others in the family.
"I found the king convinced that this is the best moment to change the head of state in all normality and for the transition of the crown to the Prince of Asturias," the prime minister said.
Frequently smiling but more reserved than his father, Felipe had long suffered from comparisons with his father.
But Juan Carlos's image was dealt 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 the king's 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.