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Suarez, ex-prime minister who led Spain to democracy, dies at age 81

MADRID--Adolfo Suarez, the prime minister who led Spain to democracy after decades of dictatorship and became its first elected premier after the death of General Francisco Franco, died Sunday aged 81.

Suarez passed away at Madrid's Cemtro hospital where he was admitted Monday with pneumonia, family spokesman Fermin Urbiola told reporters outside the hospital.

Suarez had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past decade.

His son Adolfo Suarez Illana told reporters on Friday that his father's illness had progressed and his death was “imminent.”

Suarez was one of the last surviving players in Spain's historic “transition” — the delicate dismantling of dictatorship followed by democratic reforms that he and King Juan Carlos helped achieve after Franco died in 1975.

Despite being born the son of a Republican, Suarez became a member of Franco's regime, serving as head of the state broadcaster and a senior leader in the National Movement, a pro-Franco party with fascist roots.

The king, Franco's successor as head of state, named Suarez prime minister in a new government in 1976 at the age of 44, and the following year he won Spain's first democratic elections held after Franco's death.

A charismatic leader admired for his talent for conciliation, Suarez oversaw the legalisation of political parties, including the Communist Party which had been persecuted under Franco, and helped them forge a consensus as they hammered out a constitution, approved in a referendum in 1978.

'Freer and fairer country'

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared three days of national mourning.

“Suarez was the meeting point for the reconciliation between Spaniards,” Rajoy, who wore a black suit and tie, said in a televised address.

“His intuition, his skills and his courage were key in creating the freer and fairer country in which we live.”

Players wearing black ribbons at Sunday's crucial La Liga clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the capital's Bernabeu stadium held a minute's silence for Suarez.

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Spainish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, left, meets with U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the White House in Washington, D.C. in this Jan. 14, 1980 file photo.

(AP)

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