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Finger food, no banquet, for guests as frugal new Spanish king pays heed to economic crisis

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MADRID - Crown Prince Felipe ascended to the Spanish throne at midnight Wednesday, but there weren't any ritzy official celebrations.

The economic crisis that has left a quarter of Spaniards out of work prompted Europe's newest king to be relatively frugal at his proclamation.

The crown prince's father, 76-year-old Juan Carlos, misjudged public anger at financial hardship when he went on an elephant-hunting safari in Africa. Felipe, 46, appears keen to show he's more in tune with his countrymen — and avoid the mistakes of his abdicating predecessor.

The landmark occasion was perhaps most notable for what it didn't include: no state banquet, no foreign royals or heads of state, no ostentatious ceremonies or parades.

By royal standards, it was humble: reception guests were being served hot and cold tapas-style nibbles, to be eaten while standing. There was no champagne, just sparkling cava wine from Spain's Catalonia region.

"More than anything this is a message. What they want to say is: 'We're in a moment when sobriety in spending shows a certain sense of solidarity in a time of economic difficulty,'" Navarra University history professor Pablo Perez Lopez said.

Juan Carlos on Wednesday signed legislation, approved by Parliament earlier this month, setting out the legal framework for the handover. The retiring monarch, who underwent a hip replacement operation last November, used a walking cane and moved with difficulty during the televised signing ceremony.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately ratified the law, which went into force at midnight in Spain (2200 GMT).

Felipe is to be formally proclaimed monarch and swear an oath at a ceremony with lawmakers in Parliament on Thursday. It will be a no-frills event, though the 18th-century Spanish crown and 17th-century scepter will be on display.

After a brief military parade, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia will take a drive through expected crowds along some of Madrid's most emblematic streets and monuments — such as the Prado Museum and the Cibeles fountain.

The palace acknowledged that the customary pomp had been eliminated "in keeping with the criteria of austerity that the times recommend."

The reasoning behind that choice is easy to understand, says Emilio de Diego Garcia, history professor at Madrid's Complutense University.

"In a time when every expense is examined with a magnifying glass, particularly public money, any ostentation would have been criticized," he said.

Juan Carlos announced his surprise decision to abdicate on June 2, saying he was stepping aside after a four-decade reign to allow for younger royal blood to rally the country that is still trying to shrug off a double-dip recession and a 26 per cent jobless rate.

During most of his reign, the monarch was held in high esteem for his role in helping steer the country from military dictatorship to democracy. He took over the throne in 1975, two days after the death of longtime dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, and then endeared himself to many by making army rebels stand down during an attempted military coup in 1981.

More recently, however, the royal family's image was tarnished by Juan Carlos' 2012 Botswana hunting trip. Another scandal saw Juan Carlos' youngest daughter, Princess Cristina, testify this year in the fraud and money-laundering case engulfing her husband, the Olympic handball medallist turned businessman Inaki Urdangarin.

Juan Carlos won broad support for his handling of Spain's 20th-century challenges. Felipe VI must now address Spain's 21st-century difficulties.

Keeping the bill down for taxpayers is just one of the challenges facing the new king.

Much more pressing will be whether he can keep the country united as separatist movements, such as those in Catalonia and the Basque region, try to pull the country apart. Such an unraveling could place the monarchy itself in danger.

The abdication announcement initially triggered widespread demonstrations calling for a referendum on reinstating a republic. But a recent poll found that while 62 per cent of respondents said they wanted a referendum on the monarchy "at some point," 49 per cent said they favoured a monarchy with Felipe as king, while only 36 per cent wanted a republic. Others did not answer or expressed no opinion.

Felipe holds a law degree from Madrid's Autonomous University and obtained a master's in international relations from Georgetown University in Washington. His wife is a former television journalist and a divorced commoner. Many people feel that record will help make Felipe more attuned to the public mood.

Diego Garcia, the Complutense professor, believes Spain is going to see "a more austere monarchy, one closer to the people and the reality of the country."

The 2,000 guests invited to the royal reception were from a wide range of Spanish society, including Madrid ambassadors as well as representatives from the business, cultural, media and sports sectors.

Authorities have prohibited a planned demonstration in Madrid on Thursday by people demanding an end to the monarchy.

The palace said it had no information on the overall cost of the events, which will be overseen by some 7,000 police.

____

Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.

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