Obituary: Adolfo Suarez / First Spanish prime minister after Franco

Died March 23, 2014

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Adolfo Suarez, Spain's first prime minister after the Franco dictatorship and a key figure in the country's transition back to democracy, died in Madrid on Sunday. He was 81.

A family spokesman, Fermin Urbiola, announced the death. Mr. Suarez was admitted to a Madrid hospital last Monday with respiratory problems that developed into pneumonia. He had been treated for Alzheimer's disease for a decade.

A lawyer by training, Mr. Suarez led a new generation of Spanish politicians who filled the power vacuum left by the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in late 1975.

The government announced three days of official mourning and said that Mr. Suarez would receive a state funeral. In a televised address Sunday, King Juan Carlos called Mr. Suarez "a loyal friend" who had helped lead the country back to democracy, calling it "one of the most brilliant chapters in Spanish history."

The king picked Mr. Suarez, who was then 43, to form a government in 1976. At the time, Mr. Suarez was a successful but relatively obscure aparatchik of the Franco regime who had spent a few years running the national radio and television broadcaster. But he had little of the power-brokering experience that was required to heal deep divisions in Spanish society after four decades of dictatorship and international isolation.

Still, despite his ties to Franco, Mr. Suarez was also relatively free of any stigma as a member of the regime. He was too young to be associated with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the early and most brutal period of Franco's regime.

By June 1977, when Spain held its first democratic election since 1936, when the Civil War began, Mr. Suarez "epitomized the changing face of Spain and the emergence of a new middle class," Robert Graham wrote in "Spain: A Nation Comes of Age," a book about Spain's democratic transition.

Mr. Graham, a foreign correspondent in Madrid during Mr. Suarez's premiership, added: "His clean, youthful looks were in themselves a breath of fresh air. He represented what many Spaniards aspired to be -- a provincial boy made good, with a devout wife and a large, happy family."

The 1977 general election was won by the Union of the Democratic Center, formed just ahead of the vote as a loose, center-right coalition that included several candidates who had served in the Franco administration without being linked to its most Fascist component.

Mr. Suarez did not run as the official leader of the party, but he addressed the nation on the eve of the vote that positioned him at its helm. He could claim direct backing from King Juan Carlos, who himself had been handpicked by Franco and crowned only two days after the dictator's death.

"The point of departure is the recognition of pluralism in our society: We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring it," Mr. Suarez told lawmakers in 1976.

This pluralism included the Communist Party, which had been banned under Franco. In a secret meeting with Santiago Carrillo, Spain's long-exiled Communist leader, Mr. Suarez offered to legalize the Communists in return for a pledge that they would join the election.

His engineering of a wave of political conciliation and a smooth switch to democratic elections represented the high-water marks of his premiership. Much of his premiership afterward was rife with tensions within the leadership of his own party and cabinet reshuffles.

By the start of 1981, Mr. Suarez was facing an internal party rebellion and trailing in the polls behind the Socialist Party. His response was to resign, a decision he did not fully explain, although he hinted that his other option -- calling an early general election -- risked making Spain's return to democracy a "parenthesis in history" if the Socialists took power and provoked a takeover by the military, which was dead set against their running the country.

Although he had won popular support cast as an outsider to Spain's establishment, he was awarded by the king with a noble title, Duke of Suarez, after stepping down as prime minister. His last public appearance was in 2003. Two years later, his family said Mr. Suarez had Alzheimer's disease and could no longer remember having led Spain.

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