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the end of juan carlos’ reign

How King Juan Carlos revealed his abdication secret

EL PAÍS reconstructs the final series of events leading up to Monday’s historic announcement

King Juan Carlos at the royal residence a few hours after his announcement.
King Juan Carlos at the royal residence a few hours after his announcement.

He did not reveal his plans to the pope when he saw him in Rome on April 28. Neither did he discuss them during his recent visits to the sheikhs and sultans of the Persian Gulf, with whom he is on such friendly terms that they call one another “brother.”

King Juan Carlos held on to his secret, knowing that once disclosed it would become the biggest national news story for months to come.

He and his son Felipe discussed three possible dates for unveiling the succession plan to the public: the last week of May and either the first or second week of June.

Last Friday, before Felipe’s scheduled trip to El Salvador for the swearing-in of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the outgoing monarch and the crown prince pored over the last details.

On Monday, June 2, with Felipe back in Madrid and Queen Sofía still in Central America (she was due to fly to New York the next day to accept a Path to Peace award), the wheels were set in motion.

EL PAÍS has reconstructed the final series of events leading up to the historic announcement of Juan Carlos’s decision to abdicate the throne.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy arrived at La Zarzuela, the royal residence, at 9am to meet with the king. The conversation lasted close to 30 minutes. Right after that, a film crew from state broadcaster TVE arrived on the premises without having been told why it was needed. It was this team that would later record the king’s historic address to the nation explaining his reasons for the decision.

Before Rajoy told anybody about what was happening, Juan Carlos personally called the speakers of Congress, Jesús Posada, and the Senate, Pío García Escudero, to inform them that he was relinquishing the throne because he thought it would be “the best thing for the Crown and for Spain.”

At 10.30am, Juan Carlos and Prince Felipe watched Rajoy’s brief television appearance informing Spaniards of the king’s decision. The news had finally broken.

While technicians prepared the royal office for the king’s recording, Juan Carlos locked himself away in a nearby room to rehearse his speech one last time. He and his team at La Zarzuela had worked on the draft carefully and come up with several versions that they ran by Felipe first. Government members also read the message prior to its release.

The recording began at 11am, but it had to be interrupted several times because Juan Carlos kept getting emotional as he said his final goodbye after nearly 39 years. The crown prince was with him inside the office.

Afterwards, the king picked up a long list with several dozen phone numbers of people he wanted to call personally: politicians, business leaders, publishers, judges and all of Europe’s monarchs, including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. He spent most of the day on the phone, according to sources at La Zarzuela.

My father was a republican and so am I, but for my generation, the choice was  democracy or dictatorship”

UGT labor union chief Cándido Méndez

There was more than one republican on his list. Juan Carlos called representatives of every party with a presence in Congress, including Cayo Lara, leader of the United Left coalition. Lara says he told the king that it was his intention to “fight” for a referendum so Spaniards can decide whether they want a monarchy or a republic. He had told the king the same thing back in 2009, and Juan Carlos had jokingly replied that he thought this was fine, but to please understand that he was personally pro-monarchy.

Cándido Méndez, head of the UGT labor union, was surprised to see a missed call from the monarch on his cellphone that day. “I was at an event in Barcelona and had put my phone on silent mode. When I returned the call, I was told that the king wanted to speak to me,” he tells EL PAÍS.

The recording had to be interrupted several times because Juan Carlos kept getting emotional as he said goodbye 

“He was very kind. I thanked him for making the call. We were always on good terms because he was always willing to help. He is very well informed and he seemed to value my opinion. We had a warm relationship. He knows how to create that kind of proximity with people. I am fond of him. My father was a republican and so am I, but for my generation, the choice was not between a monarchy or a republic, but between democracy or a dictatorship.”

And all the while, Juan Carlos kept taking calls from world leaders who called him to express their best wishes. These included Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s François Hollande, who said the king had embodied “democratic Spain.”