FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012 file photo, Belgium's King Albert II, right, speaks with Queen Paola as they sit on a bench on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Laeken, Belgium. Belgian King Albert has unexpectedly announced that he will address the nation Wednesday July 3, 2013, a speech that comes amid rumors he will step down in the near future. The Royal Palace announced Albert will first attend a meeting with key government members before the address to air on all major broadcast networks at 6pm (1600GMT; Noon EST). (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium's King Albert announced Wednesday that he will abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Philippe on July 21.
The move had been rumored for weeks and will end nearly two decades of steady reign over a fractious kingdom, one which has been 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 says 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 announcement carried by all 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 from the throne.
In August, Albert would mark his second decade on the throne of the kingdom of 10.5 million people. The nation celebrates independence day on July 21 and many have said that 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 officially 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.
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