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Adolfo Suarez

Former Spanish prime minister.

Born: September 25, 1932; Died: March 23, 2014

Adolfo Suarez, who has died aged 81, was a former Prime Minister of Spain who steered the country through one of the most turbulent periods in its political history and built bridges after fascist dictator General Francisco Franco died in 1975.

Many Spaniards remember Mr Suarez's unruffled demeanour during one of the most tense moments in the country's modern history, an attempted coup on February 23 1981.

Six years earlier, after Franco's death, King Juan Carlos called on Mr Suarez, a young Francoist minister, to try to unite the two factions who were still in a sense fighting the 1936-1939 civil war, and indeed were further apart than ever after nearly 40 years of fascism exiled thousands of left-wingers.

At the time, his Francoist colleagues called him a turncoat and the main opposition Socialists accused him of opportunism.

The immediate aim was to organise Spain's first democratic elections since the war, which Mr Suarez ended up winning in 1977, serving as prime minister for four years in which the country was beset by myriad economic, political and security problems. He drew criticism from all sides and eventually resigned.

But decades later, Mr Suarez came to be recognised as one of the founding fathers of modern Spain. A 2007 poll showed that Spaniards regarded him as the most respected prime minister since Franco's death.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who served as prime minister from 2004 to 2011, said Mr Suarez's political career represented the highest spirit of Spain's democratic transition: recognition of dissenting voices, promotion of tolerance and the practice of dialogue.

Handsome, charming both in and out of the political arena and acting with a notable sangfroid at potentially explosive times, Mr Suarez was made a duke in 1981 and formed a close friendship with the king.

"He was a great statesman," said King Juan Carlos in a TV address, his voice at times trembling. "Suarez saw with clarity and great generosity that the welfare and the future of everyone depended on consensus."

One of the most controversial steps in the transition process was Mr Suarez's 1977 legalisation of the Communist Party, which had been persecuted by Franco as the backbone of the forces against him.

Mr Suarez carried out the move in stealth during the long Easter weekend, having agreed in advance with the exiled head of the Communists, Santiago Carrillo.

The surprise decision provoked fury in the establishment and the military, as well as fear amongst ordinary Spaniards who had been told for decades that the Communists and Mr Carrillo were arch-enemies of the state. But Mr Suarez understood it was unavoidable if Spain was to become a democracy after years of dictatorship.

Biographer and historian Charles Powell said: "He was a transformational leader whose main priority as a politician was national reconciliation. This was probably due to the fact that the legacy of both sides of the Civil War was very much part of his family history.

"When he was asked whether it was a good thing that former Francoists had played such a prominent role in the transition, he used to say: 'I never asked anyone where they came from, only where they wanted to go'."

He was born in Cebreros the son of Catholic parents and studied law at the University of Salamanca and obtained a doctorate from Madrid University. After a number of positions in local government, he was spotted by Franco who appointed him as director-general of Spanish Radio and Television with a mission to promote Franco's choice as successor as head of state, Juan Carlos.

Once in office as prime minister, Mr Suarez's relationship with his party deteriorated as he contended with Basque separatist violence, economic headaches and bitter criticism from all sides, leading to his resignation as prime minister in 1981.

Mr Suarez's successor was being sworn in at parliament on February 23, 1981 when Antonio Tejero, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Guard, entered the building with a squad of men and fired shots in the air.

Mr Suarez was one of just three members of parliament who sat calmly while dozens of others threw themselves to the floor in panic.

Tejero, backed by a group of senior army members, held parliament hostage for hours and many Spaniards feared the country would slip back into military rule only a few years after Franco's death.

King Juan Carlos diffused the situation, appearing on television to call for national unity and support for the elected government. Tejero and his co-conspirators were arrested.

Mr Suarez went on to form another political party with which he never saw the same success, and retired from politics in 1991 to care for his wife Amparo and daughter Marian who both suffered from breast cancer. Amparo died in 2001, followed by Marian in 2004.

He is survived by his three remaining daughters and two sons.

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