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How a top yachtsman donned crown, won Spain's affections

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JUAN Carlos I is no ordinary king. Of all the reigning monarchs in Europe, the King of Spain has had to work the hardest to earn his crown. Today, 10 years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the tall, relaxed monarch is revered by political parties and the public as the leader who single-mindedly upheld democratic principles through the delicate moments of transition from a 40-year dictatorship to democracy.

He can also be more concerned about people than protocol. In March 1979, for instance, then-Prime Minister Adolfo Su'arez had just returned, ill and weary, from a grueling trip. Rather than asking Mr. Su'arez to come to him for a briefing on the trip, King Juan Carlos donned his helmet and rode off into the night on his motorcycle to the prime minister's residence on the outskirts of Madrid.

The King has built his present popularity from a past darkened by mistrust, humiliation, and political uncertainty.

When General Franco died on Nov. 20, 1975, the newly proclaimed King was up against all odds. Hardly anybody wanted Franco's hand-picked heir, who was mocked for his wooden speeches and blank gaze.

And, in the latter half of the 20th century, who wanted a monarchy? Certainly not the left-wing opposition and not even the right-wing extremists. Exiled Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo dubbed the future king ``Juan Carlos the Short-Lived.'' The public hardly knew Juan Carlos to be anything more than a champion yachtsman.

In short, King Juan Carlos sorely needed credibility and legitimacy. It was a strange destiny for this Bourbon prince, born in exile in Rome during the Spanish Civil War, to be named successor to a dictator.

Obsessed with providing continuity and respectability for his regime, Franco had curiously declared Spain a kingdom in 1947. Only in 1969 did Franco finally designate Juan Carlos to succeed him, saying that he was not restoring a monarchy but establishing anew one that would uphold the principles of his regime.

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