BELGIUM’S King Albert is to abdicate in favour of Crown Prince Philippe on 21 July.
The move announced yesterday had been rumoured for weeks and will end nearly two decades of steady reign over a fractious kingdom, one which has been increasingly torn apart by political strife between northern Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking southern Wallonia.
Frail at 79, Albert will be handing the throne to Philippe, who is 53.
Albert said his “age and health” no longer allow him to carry out his functions as he would want to.
“After a reign of 20 years I believe the moment is here to hand over the torch to the next generation,” the king said in an announcement carried by all major broadcasters. “Prince Philippe is well prepared to succeed me.”
Belgium has had six kings since it came into being in 1830; Albert is the first to voluntarily abdicate.
Belgium is enjoying something of a political lull as it prepares for potentially bruising nationwide and regional elections next spring. Any abdication at that stage would be practically impossible.
“His most important gift is that he provided a sense of stability” as Flanders and Wallonia drifted apart, historian and author Marc Reynebeau said.
At a family level, life has not been as smooth.
After he succeeded his devoutly Roman Catholic brother Baudouin in 1993, Albert became embroiled in a major royal scandal when he had to acknowledge an out-of-wedlock daughter, Delphine Boel, and suffered a major crisis in his marriage with Queen Paola.
“He is not alone. Many royals around the world have extramarital children. But there has been a change in the sense that this becomes much more public now,” Mr Reynebeau said.