Adolfo Suarez, Spain’s Post-Franco Prime Minister, Dies

Adolfo Suarez, the prime minister who led Spain from dictatorship to democracy and became its first elected premier after the death of Francisco Franco, has died, Spanish state-owned broadcaster RTVE said. He was 81.

Suarez died today in Madrid’s Cemtro Clinic hospital, family spokesman Fermin Urbiola said in televised comments.

The former prime minister had been suffering from a neurological disease for the past decade and his condition deteriorated over recent days, his son, Adolfo Suarez Illana, said in a televised statement on March 21. By 2005, he could no longer remember being prime minister, the younger Suarez told El Mundo newspaper in June of that year.

Adolfo Suarez, who served under Franco as a regional governor and director of state television, was chosen by his friend King Juan Carlos I in 1976 to lead the country back to democracy after the dictator’s death the previous year. A lawyer by training, he pushed through sweeping political reforms including the legalization of the Communist Party and in 1977 called the first free elections in four decades. His Union of the Democratic Center won the vote.

“Suarez was at the center of engineering the settlement which led to the 1978 constitution,” said Sebastian Balfour, professor emeritus of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics, who lived in Spain during the transition. “He was a pragmatist and an immensely skillful negotiator.”

‘Pain is Deep’

King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy led the tributes to Suarez.

“The death of Suarez fills me with consternation and sadness; I had in him a loyal friend and an exceptional collaborator,” the king said in a televised speech broadcast by RTVE. “My pain is deep.”

Rajoy said Spain will hold three days of official mourning. Suarez was as one of the most “important and positive figures” in Spanish history, who made democracy possible and “opened the door to Europe,” Rajoy said.

Facing a surge in Basque separatist violence and seeking consensus between Francoists, leftists and regional leaders wanting autonomous power, Suarez put a new constitution to a referendum in 1978. His party went on to win the next general election in 1979, although he resigned in 1981 amid falling popularity.

Civil Guard

“I tend to say that I have undertaken a boxing match in which I’m not willing to throw a single punch,” Suarez said in an interview with ABC newspaper in 1980 that was not published until 2007 because his advisers considered it too candid.

“One has to be willing to accept an enormous amount of unpopularity,” he said. “But I am prepared for that.”

As Suarez prepared to turn over power to his successor, Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, armed members of the Civil Guard, led by Antonio Tejero, stormed the parliament in a coup attempt on Feb. 23, 1981. Suarez was among the handful of people who challenged the coup leaders, as most deputies ducked to the floor. Suarez and other prominent politicians, including future prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, were held hostage during the crisis, which was diffused by King Juan Carlos.

The following year, Gonzalez and his Socialist Party won elections and went on to govern Spain for the next 13 years.

Law Degree

Suarez was born on Sept. 25, 1932, in the village of Cebreros, about 60 miles west of the capital, the eldest son of Hipolito Suarez, a low-level government official, and Herminia Gonzalez. The year before, Juan Carlos’s grandfather, Alfonso XIII, had been forced to abdicate and Suarez grew up through Spain’s second republic and the three-year civil war before building his career as an official during the dictatorship.

The future prime minister obtained a law degree and a doctorate in Madrid before ascending the ranks of Franco’s National Movement. He became governor of Segovia province in 1968 and the following year was appointed director general of the state broadcaster where he guided the organization through the easing of censorship laws. He was deputy secretary general of the movement at the time of the dictator’s death.

Suarez’s wife, Maria del Amparo Illana, died of breast cancer in 2001 and a daughter, known as Mariam, died in 2004 of the same disease. He had four other children.