BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium's King Albert unexpectedly announced that he would address the nation Wednesday evening, fueling rumors the 79-year-old will abdicate in favor of his son, Crown Prince Philippe.
Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said he, too, would make an official announcement immediately after the king's speech. It further heightened expectations the 20-year reign of Albert is drawing to a close.
The VRT network published the headline "King Albert announces his abdication tonight," basing its report on sources close to the monarch.
The Royal Palace said Albert would first attend a meeting with key government members before the address, to air on all major broadcast networks at 6 p.m. (1600GMT; Noon EST).
Belgium has had six kings since it came into being in 1830; Albert would be 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.
Albert has seen the steady unraveling of his kingdom into an increasingly divided nation where northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders has been seeking increasing autonomy at the expense of southern, French-speaking Wallonia.
"His most important gift is that he provided a sense of stability," 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 "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.
At the same time, Albert brought some earthy charm and easygoing fun to the royalty after decades of stiff formality under Baudouin.
But increasingly the years bore down on him as he turned from a king with a love of sleek motorcycles into a frail monarch sometimes relying on a walking stick.
Adding to his troubles was the eternal political strife within the nation itself. 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.
Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands