Belgium after King Albert

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Abdication seems to be in fashion among the world's leaders for life.

After the recent departures of Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Sheikh Hamad of Qatar, King Albert II of the Belgians has become the latest sovereign to announce he's stepping down.

For global palace gossips, Albert's imminent departure has triggered an online buzz over who'll be the next elderly royal to hand over to the next generation.

Spain's King Juan Carlos, 75, has been tipped to stand aside due to poor health and a spate of royal scandals. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power is offering odds of 8-to-1 that Britain's 87-year-old Queen Elizabeth II will retire by the end of the year.

In the Netherlands, Beatrix's decision to step aside in favor of her son, now King Willem-Alexander, was greeted by an outpouring of royalist support and street celebrations that saw millions party the night away.

For neighboring Belgium, however, abdication is a serious business.

The monarchy has been more than a symbol of unity in this complex country, where divisions run deep between the Dutch-speaking majority and French speakers who make up 40 percent of the population’s 10 million people.

Still, its position was undermined by national elections in 2010 saw a republican and separatist party — New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA — emerge as the biggest political force. Anti-monarchy parties took 44 percent of the vote in the Dutch-speaking north.

Supporters of Belgian unity fear Albert's abdication may further boost the republican cause.

"The political world has emphasized how it will increase the fragility of our country, where unity remains under the threat of a crushing victory of the separatist and republican N-VA," Beatrice Delvaux, editor of the francophone newspaper Le Soir, wrote Thursday.

Albert's son and heir, Philippe, due to become king on July 21, the national holiday, often appears ill-at-ease in the public spotlight. He's been accused — particularly in Dutch-speaking Flanders — of clumsy meddling in politics.

A poll in January carried by the Dutch-language TV network VTM indicated just 23 percent of Belgians expressed confidence in Philippe, compared to his father's 42 percent rating.

In a country where many of the powers and symbols of statehood have been transferred from the federal government to the rival language-based regions, the monarchy has been a rare unifying factor.

Although there's been a strong nationalist movement in Dutch-speaking Flanders since the 19th century, separatism was counterbalanced by affection for the royal family among the region's traditionally Catholic and conservative voters.

However, Flemish attitudes have shifted recently. Fifty-two percent of Dutch-speakers would back an end to the monarchy, according to the VTM poll.

Ironically, the royal family currently gets most support from the country's solidly Socialist and French-speaking south. N-VA leader Bart De Wever called 79-year-old Albert "the right arm of the Socialist Party" as the king sought to mediate during the long political stalemate that followed the 2010 elections.

Flemish nationalist politicians have gloated over regal red faces as Albert faced a court case this year bought by London-based artist Delphine Boel, who claims the king fathered her during an extramarital affair in the 1960s. Other prominent royals have been hit by allegations of tax dodging and dubious business deals.

"King Albert resigns! Finally... Faster than Morsi but equally unpopular... Long live the Flemish republic," tweeted Filip Dewinter, a leader of the far-right Flemish Interest party, as the announcement of Albert's abdication on Wednesday coincided with the ousting of Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi.

Flemish Interest, which combines demands for a republic with attacks on immigration and attempts to rehabilitate Nazi-era collaborators, won 12 percent of the Flemish vote in 2010.

However, the N-VA’s more numerous relatively moderate nationalists were circumspect in their response to the abdication. Their leaders sensed a national mood of sympathy for Albert after his 20-year reign and anticipate a temporary surge of support for the soon-to-be King Philippe I and his telegenic wife Princess Mathilde.

"We support the system of a republic, but the N-VA will not take the initiative to abolish the monarchy," separatist lawmaker Jan Jambon told parliament Thursday. "If there is no majority for a republic, we will accept the system of a kingdom, but don't ask us to be enthusiastic about it."

Few expect the truce to last.

The nationalists are supported by more mainstream Dutch-speaking parties in demanding greater limitations to the monarchy’s role to ensure Philippe won't get the king's power to act as a mediator in the formation of government coalitions.

Experts say Philippe will have to tread carefully to avoid inflaming the political situation — as he did in 2004 when he warned: "Those who want to destroy Belgium and break up the country will have to deal with me."

"A lot will depend on the way the new King Philippe will play the role," says Dave Sinardet, political science professor at the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels. "If he makes mistakes, if his communication is problematic or he becomes too political, this could weaken the monarchy and therefore also Belgium."

Philippe, 53, studied at Oxford and Stanford universities and served as fighter pilot and paratroop commander in the Belgian military. He was being groomed to take the throne when his childless uncle King Baudouin died suddenly from a heart attack in 1993, but his father was crowned instead because Philippe was judged unready.

Some say that's still the case.

"It's an open secret that pretty much none of the political parties want to see Philippe on the throne," separatist leader De Wever told VRT radio in May

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However, Philippe, now a silver-haired father of four, says he's fully prepared to become head of state.

"I am well aware of the responsibility that is on my shoulders and I will continue to give everything I have, with my whole heart," he told reporters Thursday during a visit to the northern city of Antwerp, where De Wever is mayor.

The key test will come with national parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2014. Polls currently show the republican N-VA taking 22 percent of the vote, more than double the score of their nearest rivals.