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Little fanfare as Belgium ushers in new king

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    King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium wave from a balcony during their visit to Gent, July 17, 2013. Belgium is beating the drum but not too loudly as King Albert II abdicates in favour of son Philippe in sober weekend celebrations clouded by doubts over the new king's political dexterity and shorn of foreign royals.BELGA/AFP

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    (L-R) Belgium's King Albert II, Crown Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde attend a reception at the royal palace of Laeken, Brussels on July 12, 2013.AFP

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    A royalist waves a Belgian flag during a protest of Flemish nationalist groups Voorpost and NSV during a visit of the Belgian Royal couple in Gent on July 17, 2013. Belgium is beating the drum but not too loudly as King Albert II abdicates in favour of son Philippe in sober weekend celebrations clouded by doubts over the new king's political dexterity and shorn of foreign royals.Belga/AFP

Belgium is beating the drum but not too loudly as King Albert II abdicates in favour of son Philippe in sober weekend celebrations clouded by doubts over the new king's political dexterity and shorn of foreign royals.

After two decades at the helm of the small but divided state at the heart of Europe, the 79-year-old monarch took his 11 million subjects by surprise early this month, saying he felt too old and frail to continue.

"The time has come to pass the torch," he told the nation.

Albert's departure as the country heads for high-risk polls next year unleashed a flood of concern that Philippe might lack the tact and know-how needed to keep linguistically-split Belgium in one piece.

Some fear the shy 53-year-old lacks the social grace required of a king.

But the crown prince "has seriously and with a sense of responsibility prepared himself for his new functions," countered Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo in a word of assurance.

Albert, emblem of unity and praised for steering Belgium through two severe political storms dividing its Flemish and French communities, abdicates at 10:30 am (0830 GMT) Sunday, Belgium's National Day.

His eldest son is then sworn in as Belgium's seventh monarch at 1:00 pm before parliament, as is the tradition since Leopold I founded the Coburg-Saxe House of Belgium in 1831, a year after the country split from the Netherlands.

The new king's wife, Princess Mathilde, a popular 40-year-old with an outgoing personality that contrasts with Philippe's awkwardness, will be the country's first queen of Belgian origin.

In another first since the scrapping of Salic law against female succession in 1991, their oldest child, 12-year-old Elisabeth, will be in line to become Belgium's first reigning queen.

Albert this week tours Flemish-, French- and German-speaking cities with legendarily beautiful Queen Paola, who wowed the crowds in the 1950s and 1960s at the side of the then sprightly young prince, a lover of fast cars and fast living.

On Sunday the father and son will stand side by side for the National Day military parade that comes as one reign ends and another begins.

With Albert and Paola keeping their titles, Belgium will boast a grand total of two kings and three queens -- Paola, Mathilde and dowager queen Fabiola, widow of Albert's brother King Baudouin who died childless 20 years ago.

But as Europe continues to fight economic crisis with austerity, the government has kept spending for the abdication and enthronement at around half a million euros, the usual cost of National Day celebrations.

"The king and the government have agreed to celebrate in sobriety and simplicity," Di Rupo said.

No foreign royals have been invited either, "because this is the tradition in Belgium where the king is sworn in before the nation, represented by parliament," the premier's spokesman said.

"It would not have been correct to invite (royalty) at the last minute," palace spokesman Bruno Neve de Mevergnies told AFP.

-- 2014 elections loom large --

The second son of King Leopold III and Astrid of Sweden, Albert was never destined to reign but was forced to ascend to the throne in 1993, already a grandfather, on the death of his older brother.

"King Albert seems to me to have had a most unmemorable reign," Hugo Vickers, longtime British specialist observer of royalty, told AFP. "A shame because I remember the film-star beauty of Princess Paola in the 1960s."

But for Belgians, despite scandals over inheritance tax and illegitimate offspring that have caught up with the royals of late, Albert has left an indelible mark.

He played a key role in maintaining national unity in recent years, steering fractious politicians towards a deal to form a government in 2011 after Belgium spent a world-record 541 days without a government.

Notably low-profile these last days is the powerful separatist Flemish party, the N-VA, tipped to lead 2014 general elections and the sole significant anti-royalist voice in politics.

Analysts say Albert hopes to give Philippe time to make his mark before the potentially dangerous May 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's ULB University.