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New King Takes Over in Belgium
July 21, 2013

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Belgium has a new king.

King Albert II stepped aside on Belgium Day, the country's national holiday, and made way for his son, who became King Philippe I. Albert is 79; Philippe is 53.

The new monarch, in his first speech as king after taking the oath of office at parliament, referenced the country's signature problem, promising to strive for unity among the 6 million Dutch speakers and 4.5 million French speakers. One Flemish separatist group refused to attend the ceremony, and the largest party in the legislature, also a Flemish group, sent just a few people.

The two sections of the country have often been at odds, especially recently, with a struggle to form a new government lasting 541 days. New elections for parliament are scheduled for June 2014.

Belgium is a parliamentary democracy. The king has a limited role in the government (including the appointment of the Prime Minister and other Ministers), but one of the key responsibilities of the reigning monarch is to appoint people to act as mediators in the ongoing disputes between the two camps. The politics of the country are quite complex, with many issues usually framed along the lines of geography and linguistics rather than political philosophy. The northern provinces are primarily Dutch-speaking; the southern provinces are primarily French-speaking. In recent years, the divide between the two linguistics groups has deepened, with both sides occasionally threatening to form their own country.

The king and his wife, Queen Mathilde, got war wishes by 10,000 people who braved the high heat to attend the ceremony. A military parade, already planned, helped commemorate the changing of the monarchical guard. Albert announced his abdication just a few weeks earlier, however, and so no foreign dignitaries were present.

Philippe, who boasts training as a fighter pilot, has degrees from Oxford and Stanford and has made a name for himself at the head of trade missions to countries around the world.

Albert II, who abdicated because of ill health, became king in 1993, when his brother, Baudouin I, died. Baudouin had become king when his father, Leopold III, had abdicated in 1951. Leopold had been king during World War II. His father, Albert I, had been king during World War I.

Albert followed in the footsteps of Holland's Queen Beatrix, who recently abdicated in favor of her son Willem-Alexander.

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