Belgium's King Albert abdicated today after a 20-year reign, as his son, Philippe, took 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 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, Philippe, 53, took the oath. "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." Albert announced his abdication 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 coming months. The fractious nation, divided by language, holds parliamentary elections in June 2014. Philippe "is a very wise person, a person who is very well prepared," said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "He knows the politics of Belgium and Europe very well." The AP has a primer on Belgium's monarchy, which has yet to crown a queen. (Read more King Albert stories.)