BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium's King Albert abdicated on Sunday after a 20-year reign, clearing the way for his son, Philippe, to take over as this fractured nation's seventh king later in the day.
The 79-year-old Albert signed away his rights as the kingdom's largely ceremonial ruler at the royal palace in the presence of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who holds the political power in this 183-year-old parliamentary democracy.
Less than two hours later, Belgium will get a new king when Philippe, 53, takes the oath before the nation's legislators at the parliament building a short walk across the Royal Park in the heart of the city.
"Belgium is modernizing itself and it gives me joy," Albert said. He also called for continued "cohesion" between the nation's 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million French-speakers.
Under crystal chandeliers in a gilded hall at the royal palace, Di Rupo called Albert "a great head of state" and told the outgoing king, "You are closing an important page in the history of our country."
Early in the day, both Albert and Philippe mingled with the crowds under a royal blue sky following a Catholic ceremony that set off the festivities.
Albert announced his abdication plans less than three weeks ago, so there was little time to turn the occasion into a huge international event. No foreign royals were at the ceremony. Since the royal transition coincides with Belgium's national day celebrations, a military parade had already been planned.
Philippe will face a tough task in the coming months. The fractious nation, divided by language, holds parliamentary elections in June 2014 amid calls for even more autonomy for the language groups.
After the last elections in 2010, it took a record 541 days before a government could be formed amid bickering about how much more power should be sapped from the central state to profit the separate language groups.
Unlike his five predecessors, Albert tried to avoid politics as much as possible and Philippe is expected to do likewise.
Philippe has been groomed for the job as a leader of foreign trade delegations over the past two decades.
"He is a very wise person, a person who is very well prepared," said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who attended the ceremony. "He knows the politics of Belgium and Europe very well."