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Why a popular king was declared unfit to rule by his government – for just one day

This year marks thirty years since King Baudouin of Belgium unexpectedly died while on holiday in Spain. He was one of the most popular kings Belgium ever had. Even now, three decades on, his memory is treasured. His nephew, King Philippe, paid an emotional tribute to him as he gave a speech to mark the tenth anniversary of his own rule.

King Baudouin reigned from 1951 until his death in 1993. However, there was one day during his reign that the government declared the King unable to rule. In 1990, there was one day in which Belgium did not have a sovereign.

After King Leopold III decided to abdicate, his oldest son, Baudouin ascended to the throne at the age of 20. Looking back at that period, the King felt lonely and not well prepared to take on the essential tasks of King. Only nine years later, he would be assisted by the love of his life. In 1960, he married the Spanish Fabiola de Mora y Aragon or Queen Fabiola as she would be known after her marriage.

King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola had a very happy marriage. The only thing missing in their lives were children. Queen Fabiola suffered five miscarriages through her life. When it became clear that the King and Queen would remain childless, they profiled themselves as father and mother of all Belgian children. Wherever there were children, they would take the time to talk and play with them.

The King and Queen of the Belgians were very religious people. They had found each other in their faith. They went to church every single day and often met with the Pope and cardinals. King Baudouin’s most important personal counsellors were also members of the church, especially Cardinal Suenens.

In 1990, the Belgian government and parliament decided to legalise abortion. According to the Belgian constitution, for a law to be valid, it must be signed by the King and co-signed by a secretary. However, King Baudouin refused to sign the new law legalising abortion under certain circumstances. The refusal was brought about by his sincere religious beliefs.

“Is it normal that I am the only Belgian citizen who is obligated to act against his conscience about such an important matter?” – King Baudouin

In March 1990, the King sent two letters to then-Prime Minister Martens in which he explained why he was unable to sign the law due to his “serious problems of conscience”. He wrote: “Is it normal that I am the only Belgian citizen who is obligated to act against his conscience about such an important matter?”

Prime Minister Martens and government officials tried (in vain) to convince the King to sign the law as they stressed it was his duty as King. King Baudouin, however, did not budge. The government went in deep crisis. Although, King Baudouin did not want to create a crisis and urged the government to find a legal solution “to guarantee the optimal working of the parliamentary democracy”.

Eventually, Prime Minister Martens found a solution in the constitution as one article said that when the King would be unable to rule, the government would exercise the constitutional power. The article was written for when a King would be mentally unwell.

For one day and a half, King Baudouin was considered unfit to rule, and it was on that day that the Belgian ministers signed the law legalising abortion.

On 6 April 1990, Belgium did not have a King for the first time since the establishment of the country in 1830. Even though this “solution” saved Belgium from a constitutional crisis, it was not considered a solution for the future. Today, there still isn’t a structural solution for when the King declines to sign the law. It is said that King Baudouin only managed to do this because of his enormous popularity among the Belgian people.

About author

Laura is from Belgium and has a passion for all things royal. She is Europe Correspondent for Royal Central since October 2016 and has contributed to other news websites. In her daily life she is a fulltime student in EU-politics and political communication.