Belgium's King Albert to abdicate in favour of son Philippe
Monarch will stand down on July 21 in favour of Philippe, as nation braces for elections next year
Associated Press in Brussels
Belgium's King Albert II yesterday announced his abdication in favour of his son Philippe after two decades at the helm of the tiny country.
In his short speech to the nation, read first in French then in Flemish, the 79-year-old monarch said he was too tired and too frail to continue to reign.
"I am at an age never attained by predecessors," said Albert, who will become the country's first to voluntarily abdicate from the throne. "My age and my health do not allow me to exercise my duties as I would like.
"So it is with serenity and confidence that I announce I intend to abdicate on July 21. Prince Philippe is well prepared. He and Princess Mathilde have my entire confidence," he added.
In August, Albert would mark his second decade on the throne. The nation, which has had six kings since it came into being in 1830, celebrates independence day on July 21.
Belgium is preparing for potentially bruising nationwide elections next spring.
Albert has seen the steady unraveling of his kingdom into an increasingly divided nation where northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders has been seeking increasing autonomy at the expense of southern, French-speaking Wallonia.
"His most important gift is that he provided a sense of stability," author Marc Reynebeau said.
At a family level, life has not been as smooth. After he succeeded his devoutly 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 with Queen Paola.
That issue came to the fore again this spring when Boel opened court proceedings to prove she is the king's daughter.
"Many royals around the world have extramarital children. But there has been a change in the sense that this becomes much more public now," Reynebeau said.
At the same time, Albert brought some earthy charm and easygoing fun to the royalty after decades of stiff formality under Baudouin.
But increasingly the years bore down on him as he turned from a king with a love of sleek motorcycles into a frail monarch sometimes relying on a walking stick.
Adding to his troubles was the eternal political strife. When Belgium found itself without a government for a record 541 days before the team of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo could take the oath late in 2011, Albert had to be involved in the protracted talks because one of the few real powers a Belgian monarch has is to appoint government brokers.
Analysts said the king wanted to give his heir time to make his mark before the potentially dangerous 2014 polls.
"The abdication will enable the future king to take on the mantle and to meet political leaders ahead of the elections," said political scientist Caroline Van Wynsberghe of Brussels' ULB university.
While weary Albert was reported to be ready to follow in the footsteps of Dutch Queen Beatrix after her abdication in January, commentators feared the 53-year-old Philippe might not be ready to stand in.
"He doesn't seem to have the energy or strength," Nathalie Clicteur, a 47-year-old office worker, said. But "the king is tired and has earned the right to retire," she said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse