MADRID (AP) — Adolfo Suarez, Spain's first democratically elected prime minister after decades of right-wing rule under Gen. Francisco Franco, has died aged 81.
Suarez died Sunday afternoon in Madrid's Cemtro Clinic hospital, family spokesman Fermin Urbiola said. Suarez had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a decade.
The cause of death was "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease made worse within the context of Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Isabel de la Azuela of Cemtro.
Suarez had been admitted to the hospital Monday with pneumonia. On Friday, his son Adolfo said his condition had deteriorated and that he was expected to die within days.
King Juan Carlos, in a televised address, expressed his gratitude to Suarez for his "loyalty to the crown" and sadness over his death.
"Suarez was a statesman who put the whole of the Spanish nation ahead of his personal and party interests," the king said.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said "one of the great men of our era has left us," and declared three days of national mourning.
Suarez became secretary-general of the National Movement, which was Spain's only party during Franco's rule, and also was director-general of state television broadcaster TVE.
He was 43 when he was chosen in 1976 by King Juan Carlos to lead the country toward a democratic parliamentary monarchy after Franco's death a year earlier. Suarez had the king's trust and the two were close.
"King Juan Carlos chose Suarez because he knew him, had followed his career since he was Civil Governor, knew how he thought, knew his daring, his loyalty and because Suarez had hit the nail on the head by including the words democracy and monarchy in the same broadcast package," said Fernando Onega, a government spokesman in Suarez's Cabinet.
Despite opposition to his appointment from many centrist and leftist politicians, Suarez and the Democratic Center Union party he had founded won the first post-Franco elections the following year.
Under Suarez's leadership the new Parliament approved a democratic constitution in 1978, a milestone that proved popular enough to enable him and his party to win re-election the following year.
During his time in office, Suarez surprised his critics and antagonized the army and church by legalizing political parties and trade unions and calling for an amnesty for political offenses, steps that were seen as decisive after Franco's 1939-1975 authoritarian rule.