Belgium's King Albert II to abdicate after two-decade reign

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Belgium's King Albert II is set to announce his abdication Wednesday after two decades at the helm of the tiny country at the heart of Europe and as the royal family comes under attack.

A Belgian government source confirmed media reports that Albert will announce he is stepping down on July 21, the country's national day, handing the throne to his eldest son Philippe.

In a terse statement that took the country by surprise, the palace said "the king will address the people" in a live radio and television broadcast at 1600 GMT.

The speech is to be followed 15 minutes later by a statement from Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, whose office said that a "restricted cabinet meeting" had taken place earlier in the day "in the presence of the king."

Albert, who has reigned for 20 years, turned 79 last month and has been said for several months to be tired, frail, and eager to step down.

Last month a 45-year-old sculptor, Delphine Boel, went to court to win official recognition as his natural daughter, not long after the government in the midst of a finance scandal ruled the royal family would have to pay taxes on its state allowances for the first time.

As the second son of King Leopold III (1901-1983) and Astrid of Sweden (1905-1935), he was not destined to reign but was forced to ascend to the throne in 1993 on the death of his older brother King Baudouin, who passed away without an heir.

If confirmed, it will be the first voluntary abdication in the history of Belgium. The country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1831.

A quiet self-effacing man, Albert has played a key role in the political life of the tiny language-divided nation, whose affluent Flemish north and more down-at-heels French-speaking south are increasingly split.

In 2010 and 2011, Albert steered the country's fractious politicians towards a deal after the country spent a world record-breaking 541 days without a government.

His negotiating skills through the 18-month crisis, Belgium's bleakest recent moments, were hailed by all bar the powerful Flemish N-VA separatist movement that stands poised to make significant gains in elections next year.

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. Everyone fears a repeat of the 2010-2011 crisis," said political scientist Caroline Van Wynsberghe of Brussels' ULB univerity.

As monarch, Albert's duties include representing Belgium at home and abroad on state visits, trade missions, and at high-level international meetings as well as taking an interest in Belgian society, culture and enterprise.

While weary Albert was reported to be ready to follow in the footsteps of Dutch Queen Beatrix after her abdication in January, commentators feared Philippe, aged 53, might not be ready to stand in.

But he has been increasingly in the public eye in the last months.

"He doesn't seem to have the energy or strength," Nathalie Clicteur, a 47-year-old office worker, told AFP. But "the king is tired and has earned the right to retire," she said.

Michel Galand, a soldier aged 52, said he was not worried to see Philippe step onto the throne. Though the crown prince seemed "a little awkward" in public he was also "responsible and serious."

Six kings from the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha -- now known simply as the royal house of Belgium -- have headed the constitutional monarchy since independence.

© 2013 AFP

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