Belgian king to address nation amid abdication speculation

By Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium's King Albert II will give a televised address to the nation on Wednesday, the royal palace said, amid frenzied speculation in the local media that the 79-year-old monarch will step down.

"The core council of ministers has convened in the presence of the king. The king will speak to the people at 1800 (1600 GMT) via a radio and television address," the palace said in a statement.

Local newspapers, quoting government sources, reported that the monarch would announce his resignation. The government scheduled a press conference for 15 minutes after the speech.

If it happens, the abdication would come only six months after Queen Beatrix of the neighboring Netherlands announced she would vacate the Dutch throne in favor of her son Willem Alexander.

While the Belgian monarch has no executive powers and plays a largely ceremonial role, he is a rare uniting factor in an otherwise divided country, which in recent years has seen more and more powers given to regional governments.

Albert II, who has three children, ascended to the throne in 1993 when his childless brother Baudouin passed away.

His son Philippe, 53, is next in line to the throne in the small nation where European Union headquarters are located.

In 1999 Belgian media reported that Albert had fathered a fourth child, a daughter, in an extramarital affair in the 1960s. The palace never acknowledged this.

Delphine Boel, who says she is the unrecognized daughter, summoned the monarch and two of his children to appear in a Brussels court in June, according to her lawyer.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Mark Heinrich)