The Belgian King Albert II, who reigned for 19 years as King of Belgium, officially abdicated Sunday and handed over the throne to his son Prince Philippe, the Duke of Brabant, who became the 7th King of the country. As King Albert passes his throne to Philippe, Belgium faces the prospect of secession The abdication of the 79-year old monarch has raised various hypotheses, but the official reason for his renouncement of the crown was his failing health. The most important question that comes to mind is whether Belgium can survive after Albert II.
The concern of what could happen after Albert’s departure is tied to the political situation in Belgium. The shadow of the longest crisis that rocked the country between 2010 and 2011 still hangs over the country. Due to a constitutional dispute, Belgium was without a government for 541 days. The crisis began with the virtual collapse of Prime Minister Yves Leterne’s government, the subsequent election and its failure to produce a clear winner. Belgium has been at risk of splitting, but Albert II intervened to delay this split. The King used his authority to advise political leaders to maintain the national unit and form a government during the 2010-2011 parliamentary stalemate.
The discord, which is not yet completely resolved, is between those Belgians who want more autonomy and those who seem more favorable to the status quo. In this dispute, some political parties are even pushing for the end of the monarchy in Belgian. The real base of the battle is more cultural and linguistic. The New Flemish Alliance (NVA), the party that emerged from the last elections with the most seats, is fighting for the autonomy of the Flanders region. In other regions, such as around the capital, Brussels, French-speaking voters are also claiming more rights.
“A lot of political parties, especially in the Flemish-speaking part of the country, want to change the role of the monarchy; they want a more symbolic, ceremonial king,” Steven Samyn of the daily newspaper De Morgen told the German Broadcasting radio-TV, the Deutsch Welle. “Some parties want to go very far and end the monarchy,” Stefaan Van Hecke, chairman of the Greens in parliament commented.
Albert leaves the throne while his country is still facing this problem and approaches to the high-risk 2014 general elections, which may deepen the dispute. Belgians are keenly aware of the risk, to the point where they are no longer even thinking of the scandals over inheritance tax and illegitimate offspring that have caught up with the royals, of late. Their concern is about whether Albert’s successor will have the ability to handle the problem.
In the midst of this uncertainty, criticisms are already being raised against Philippe, the eldest son of Albert, who is taking over as King. One of the questions is whether Philippe, the new 53-year old Belgian King, will be able to play all sides, to maintain Belgian unity.
The financial crisis that has befallen Belgium since the 541 days without a government is also a major concern. Philippe has, himself, given some hope; after his father announced his abdication, he said that he is well aware of his responsibilities and would make a “wholehearted” effort to meet them. In the abdication ceremony, Albert responded to concerns by affirming that Philippe is well prepared to fulfill his function. “Philippe, you have all the emotional and intellectual qualities to serve our country well,” Albert said.
How Belgium’s political parties will welcome the new King and his politics remains to be seen. With Albert II gone and Philippe now on the throne, the prospect of secession looms and the unity of Belgium – for the time being – remains at risk.