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Spanish MPs back king's abdication

Spain's Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of urgent government legislation allowing King Juan Carlos to abdicate this month and hand over his duties to Crown Prince Felipe.

The legislation was approved by 299 MPs, while 19 voted against and 23 abstained.

Several leftist deputies protested, holding up signs demanding a referendum on whether to scrap the monarchy.

The bill was backed by the majority-ruling Popular Party and the leading opposition Socialist Party.

Juan Carlos, 76, is widely respected for steering Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy but has been hit hard by scandals in recent years.

The Senate is expected to approve the legislation on June 17, with 46-year-old Felipe being proclaimed king two days later.

The 76-year-old monarch said he was stepping aside so that fresh royal blood could rally the nation.

The change comes as Spain limps out of a double-dip recession that has left some six million people unemployed. It is also under political strain from growing drives for independence in north-eastern Catalonia and the northern Basque region.

Debating the bill, conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy said Spaniards saw the monarchy as the best way to guarantee "political stability, the continuity of (the country's) institutions and peaceful coexistence".

The abdication announcement last week triggered widespread demonstrations calling for a referendum on reinstating a republic.

A recent poll found 62% of respondents said they wanted a referendum on the monarchy "at some point". Some 49% said they favoured a monarchy with Felipe as king, while 36% wanted a republic. Others did not answer or expressed no opinion.

Juan Carlos became king in 1975, two days after the death of long-time dictator General Francisco Franco. He won massive support by staring down a 1981 coup attempt.

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