BRUSSELS – Belgium's King Albert 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 northern Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking southern Wallonia.
Frail at 79, King 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 Wednesday with a huge banner that said "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 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.
"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," 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," Di Rupo said.
Albert brought earthy charm and easygoing fun to the royalty after decades of stiff formality under Baudouin. But increasingly the years wore on him as he turned from a king with a love of sleek motorcycles into a frail monarch who sometimes relied on a walking stick.
Adding to his troubles was the nation's eternal political strife. When Belgium found itself without a government for a record 541 days before the team of 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.
With the increasing divisions among Belgians, there also was more and more unease about the lavish finances of the royal household. "Such things used to be accepted, but they no longer are. It eats away at his image," Reynebeau said.
Belgium's neighbor, the Netherlands, has already seen an abdication this year. Queen Beatrix — now known as Princess Beatrix — stepped down after a 33-year reign in favor of her eldest son, who was appointed King Willem-Alexander at a lavish ceremony in Amsterdam on April 30.
Unlike the jovial Willem-Alexander, Crown Prince Philippe, 53, has long been seen as awkward and reclusive.
"He was always faced with the dictum, 'He's not up to it.' It still weighs on him," Reynebeau said. Married to Princess Mathilde, the couple has four children.
Di Rupo said that Prince Philip "has shown a great sense of responsibility in preparing" to succeed his father.
He said he hoped that July 21 — the 20th anniversary of Albert's ascension to the throne — will be a "moment of pride" for all Belgians.