Belgium's King Albert steps down seeking unity in divided nation

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Belgian King Albert II and Prince Philippe Belgian King Albert II and Prince Philippe sit at Laeken Castle on September 2, 2012 in Brussels. Photographer: Mark Renders/Getty Images

King Albert II of Belgium announced his abdication, trying to smooth the path to next year's elections in a country torn between the richer Dutch-speaking north and poorer French-speaking south.

Albert, 79, said he will end almost 20 years as the titular head of state and hand over to his eldest son, Prince Philippe, on July 21, the anniversary of the inauguration of the first Belgian king in 1831.

"My age and my health no longer permit me to exercise my functions as I would like," the king said on national television late yesterday. "It would be a dereliction of duty and of my understanding of the royal role to try to remain in power at any cost."

Belgium's constitutional monarchs play a more prominent role in public life than other crowned heads of Europe, serving as symbols of unity and top-level political deal makers in a country of 11 million people divided between languages and economic culture.

Sectional divisions have intensified during Albert's reign, with a separatist party emerging as the dominant political force in Flanders, the northern region that is home to Europe's second-largest port and companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (ABI), the world's largest brewer.

The contrast with Wallonia, the southern region that had its heyday during the era of coal and steel, is so stark that a 2005 study on the north-south wealth gap was deemed too sensitive to be repeated. It found that Flanders funneled 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion), or 967 euros per Fleming, to the Francophone region that year.

"˜Political opportunity'

"Flemish nationalism was never as strong as today," Vincent Dujardin, a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, said on RTBF television. He called the sudden handover "a political opportunity to be seized" to tamp down separatist sentiment in the run-up to elections in May 2014.

The abdication gives Philippe, 53, time to settle in to his new duties before the balloting. In a nod to skepticism in Flanders about the nature of the monarchy, Albert said that the royal role "must continue to evolve over time."

Albert's early departure comes after jobs-for-life were abandoned by Pope Benedict XVI and Queen Beatrix of the neighboring Netherlands. Unlike his Dutch counterpart, Albert presided over a country that increasingly questioned whether it would stay in one piece.

The king's deepest venture into steering the country came after the election of June 2010 led to 541 days of feuding between political parties over the formation of a government, Belgium's longest political vacuum.

Popular protests

Albert oversaw eight attempts to mediate the stalemate, appointing fixers who were variously labeled "adviser," "mediator," "negotiator" and "pre-former." At one point, the monarch reached into his terminological toolbox and named a "clarifier."

Popular protests of the do-nothing politics reflected Belgium's talent for self-mockery, with student groups promoting a "French Fry Revolution" and one clique of men giving up shaving until a government emerged. The same mindset was behind a website that posted a Google-like error message "Government Not Found."

Le Soir, the country's leading French-language newspaper, staged a raffle to guess when a government would be formed, offering the lucky winner his or her weight in waffles, a favored Belgian snack.

Six-party coalition

The brinkmanship ended in December 2011 with Elio Di Rupo, a Socialist, becoming the first native French speaker to run Belgium since the 1970s. Di Rupo's six-party coalition is most noted for one party outside it, the N-VA, the Flemish separatist party now riding an increase in poll ratings with 10 months to the next election.

"The king has an essential role, and we saw it in 2010, to be the architect -- not on his own of course -- of defusing political crises," Marc Uyttendaele, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, said on RTBF television. "It's a power that sets the Belgian monarchy apart from the purely ceremonial monarchies of Scandinavia."

Albert was the sixth king of the Belgians, in a line dating back to Leopold I in 1831. Born in Brussels on June 6, 1934, Albert lost his mother, Queen Astrid, in a car accident in Switzerland when he was a year old. On May 10, 1940, the royal children fled before advancing German troops to France and on to Spain, only to return in August to live under Nazi occupation.

Western allies

Albert was deported with the rest of the royal household to Germany in 1944. On May 7, 1945, the day before World War II ended, the family, by now in Austria, was liberated by U.S. troops.

Postwar Belgium was roiled by accusations that Albert's father, Leopold III, backstabbed the western allies and harbored pro-German sympathies. Leopold stepped down in 1951, putting Albert's elder brother, Baudouin, on the throne.

Albert's lot was typical of modern-day royals who never expected to get the top job. He chaperoned trade missions, presided over the national savings and pensions fund, headed the Red Cross, and promoted environmental causes.

The sudden death of the childless Baudouin in 1993 forced a second career upon him. At 59, Albert became the oldest man to assume the Belgian throne, swearing an oath to "defend the nation's independence and territorial integrity."

That job will fall to Philippe, a trained fighter pilot and parachutist who also has degrees from Trinity College, Oxford and Stanford University. Philippe has four children with Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz, a Belgian aristocrat whom he married at the Brussels town hall in 1999.

Business promotion

During two decades as king in waiting, Philippe performed many of the same tasks as Albert before him, leading around 70 trade missions to places such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Brazil and India. The latest business-promotion effort took him to California and photo ops with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland last month.

Escorting 170 Belgian businesspeople to Thailand in March, the prince faced mounting speculation that his promotion would soon be at hand. Asked by Belgian television during that trip whether he was prepared to take over, he said: "We'll see when the time comes."

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