- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium’s King Albert II announced Wednesday that he will abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Philippe on July 21, the country’s independence day holiday.

The move had been rumored for weeks and will end nearly two decades of steady reign over a fractious kingdom, one increasingly torn apart by political strife between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

Frail at 79, Albert will be handing over the throne to his son 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,” Albert said in an address carried by all of Belgium’s 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 the throne.

In August, Albert would mark his second decade on the throne of the kingdom of 10.5 million people. Many have said that the day Belgium celebrates its independence could be an ideal day to hand over the largely ceremonial post.

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 told The Associated Press.

Reflecting the strife, a few dozen protesters of the extreme right Flemish Interest party posted themselves in front of the Royal Palace on Wednesday with a huge banner with the words “Flanders Independent.”

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 the existence of an out-of-wedlock daughter, Delphine Boel, and suffered a major crisis in his marriage to Queen Paola.

That issue came to the fore again this spring when Ms. Boel opened court proceedings to prove she is the king’s daughter.

“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.

Albert had not been expected to become king, since many thought that when Baudouin died, Philippe would immediately take the role. Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said Friday that even though he was “not predestined to be our king,” Albert took to the role “thanks to enthusiasm, sense of humor and attitude.”

“Through all the years, together with Queen Paola he conquered the hearts of the Belgians,” Mr. Di Rupo said.

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