By Elisabeth O'Leary
MADRID (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, who died on Sunday, steered Spain through one of the most turbulent periods in its political history and built bridges between the "two Spains" after fascist dictator General Francisco Franco died in 1975.
Suarez, who was 81, was hospitalized on March 17 with a respiratory infection. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for many years. His death was reported by state television.
Many Spaniards remember Suarez's unruffled demeanor 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 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 organize Spain's first democratic elections since the war, which 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, Suarez came to be recognized 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.
"Prime Minister's Suarez political career calls to mind the highest spirit of our democratic transition: recognition of dissenting voices, promotion of tolerance and the practice of dialogue. Thanks to that attitude he had the capacity to forge great agreements," Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who served as prime minister from 2004 to 2011, told Reuters.
Handsome, charming both in and out of the political arena and acting with a notable sangfroid at potentially explosive times, 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."
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced three days of official mourning, starting Monday.
"We have lost one of the great men of our time," Rajoy said in a live TV address. "Adolfo Suarez was the best bridge for reconciliation between Spaniards."
The death of a figure such as Suarez, respected for making sacrifices for the good of the nation, seems particularly poignant at a time when polls show that corruption has eroded Spaniards' faith in the political class.
One of the most controversial steps in the transition process was Suarez's 1977 legalization of the Communist Party, which had been persecuted by Franco as the backbone of the forces against him.
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 Carrillo were arch-enemies of the state. But Suarez understood it was unavoidable if Spain was to become a democracy after years of dictatorship.
"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," biographer and historian Charles Powell told Reuters.
"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'."
Once in office, 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.
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.
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.
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 had five children, including a son, also named Adolfo, who has been a politician, lawyer and amateur bullfighter, and a daughter, Sonsoles, a television journalist.
(Additional reporting by Iciar Reinlein and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Rosalind Russell)