Weighed down by the years, Belgium’s King Albert announced on Wednesday that he will hand the throne of his kingdom to his son Crown Prince Philippe on the country’s national holiday, July 21.
The move had been rumored for weeks and will end nearly two decades of steady reign over a country increasingly torn apart by political strife between northern Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking southern Wallonia.
Belying his frailty and 79 years of age, Albert stood upright and confident as he delivered the message to the cameras.
Albert said his age and health no longer allowed him to carry out his functions as he would want to.
Belgium has had six kings since independence and Albert is the first to voluntarily abdicate the throne.
However, he was the second European monarch to do so in barely two months. Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped down in April after a 33-year reign in favor of her eldest son, who was appointed King Willem-Alexander.
“After a reign of 20 years I believe the moment is here to hand over the torch to the next generation,” Albert said in a nationwide address carried by all of Belgium’s major broadcasters. “Prince Philippe is well prepared to succeed me.”
That has long been an issue of deep contention. When Albert’s brother, king Baudouin, died in 1993, it was widely expected that Philippe would take the throne instead of his father.
Yet, he was considered unprepared for the task at hand. Even now, at 53, the silver-haired Philippe has plenty of critics who see him as awkward and reclusive.
Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said that Prince Philippe “has shown a great sense of responsibility in preparing” for the throne.
Under the reign of his father, Philippe was groomed for the job as a leader of foreign trade delegations. Married to Princess Mathilde, the couple has four children.
The hesitations about Philippe may well last past July 21.
The kingdom has increasingly become a divided nation, with the 10.5 million Belgians split into distinct Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons.
Belgium found itself without a government for a record 541 days before the team of Di Rupo could take the oath in 2011.
Albert had to be involved in the talks because one of the few real powers a Belgian monarch has is to appoint government brokers.
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 that said “Flanders Independent.”
Belgium is enjoying something of a political lull as it prepares for potentially bruising nationwide and regional elections next spring, with the question of greater division expected to at the heart of debates. An abdication at that stage would have been inconceivable.
Reynebeau said that as Flanders and Wallonia drifted further apart, Albert’s “most important gift is that he provided a sense of stability.”
In his personal life, Albert has had his ups and downs.
After he succeeded his brother Baudouin, he became embroiled in a major royal scandal when he had to acknowledge he had a daughter out of wedlock, throwing his marriage with Queen Paola into a crisis.
The issue came to the fore again this spring when the daughter, Delphine Boel, opened court proceedings to prove Albert is her father.
After the formal and stiff Baudouin, Albert did bring some earthy and easygoing charm to the royalty.
Di Rupo said Albert won over people “thanks to enthusiasm, sense of humor and attitude.”
It was no secret that the years were taking their toll on Albert. The king had become increasingly frail, sometimes relying on a walking stick.