Spain's Senate clears way for future King Felipe VI

MADRID (AFP) - Spain's Senate voted massively in favour of King Juan Carlos's abdication Tuesday, clearing the path for his son Felipe to take the scandal-tainted crown in the first royal succession of the post-Franco era.

Despite smouldering pro-Republican sentiment, the upper house Senate voted 233-5 in favour of the abdication law, with 20 abstentions.

The law, backed by both the ruling conservative Popular Party and the main opposition Socialists, allows the throne to pass to the future King Felipe VI, a tall, 46-year-old former Olympic yachtsman.

At the head of a new generation of royals, and with his glamorous wife Letizia, 41, a former television presenter, on his arm, the new monarch is riding high in the polls but he faces a formidable task.

As king, Felipe must restore the image of the monarchy after his father's reign became bogged down in scandal; inspire a people grappling with a 26 per cent unemployment rate; and try to unite the nation even as the northeastern region of Catalonia seeks an independence referendum on November 9.

The vote in the Senate was held eight days after the lower house of parliament gave its agreement, also by a wide margin.

Some smaller left-wing and regional parties objected to the succession vote, fired up by polls showing that most Spaniards, including some pro-royalists, would favour a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

"We are here to demand an agreement: that the king abdicate in favour of the people," said Jose Maria Mariscal, a senator from the United Left coalition.

"It is time for democracy. It is time for the people to decide their future," he told the televised Senate debate.

The Senate vote was one of the last steps before the end of the 39-year reign of 76-year-old King Juan Carlos, who guided the country from dictatorship to democracy, and his wife Queen Sofia, 75.

The outgoing king hosted the last official lunch of his reign for senior figures of state including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just before the Senate debate began.

On Wednesday, Juan Carlos will sign the act of parliament formalising his abdication.

The future Felipe VI, who stands nearly two metres (six and a half feet) tall, begins his reign the moment his father's abdication becomes legally effective on its publication late Wednesday or early Thursday.

Felipe will be sworn in to the mostly ceremonial role before both houses of parliament on Thursday.