Who was Adolfo Suárez?

Spain is in mourning for Adolfo Suárez, the first democratic President of Spain, who died on Sunday.

But, who was he, and why have most people never heard of him?

His tale is a interesting and intriguing one – for most Spaniards associate him with the hope that followed the death of the military dictator Franco, when anything seemed possible, and before they became disillusioned with their politicians.

Adolfo was, together with King Juan Carlos, the person who designed and launched Spanish democracy. It was his vision, together with the trust and authority of the King, which allowed him to overrule the Generals and welcome democracy back to Spain.

It was Aldofo who planned out and oversaw the writing of the 1978 Constitution, and Adolfo who insisted that it be a unity Constitution, bringing together intellectuals from all political mindsets to work together.

And it was Adolfo who personally ruled that all could put themselves forwards at the elections, even the dreaded Communist Party of Spain, despite this sowing the seeds for his own destruction.

In reality, Adolfo was an unlikely man to transform Spain, and that’s why the King picked him. There were more capable men, and there were more ambitious men. But Adolfo ran through the middle.

Although he held several other minor government posts, his most influential government position was as Secretary General of Franco’s personal political party, the Movimento Nacional, the only political party permitted by the Dictator. Legend has it that as the General lay on his final sickbed, he summoned Adolfo to give him instructions on how to run the party after his death.

Generalissimo, said Adolfo, in all frankness your party will not survive your death, and Democracy will enter Spain.

“Then so be it” said Franco, and dismissed him.

Upon the death of Franco, King Juan Carlos became the head of State, and promptly (4th July 1976) appointed Adolfo as the Prime Minister.  His previous credentials allowed him to work with the military, and he was not right wing enough to scare the liberals. The first thing Adolfo did was to announce the start of la transición, the Transition, and shortly afterwards announced elections, to be held in early 1977.

Spain’s first free and fair elections – and they were that, surprisingly enough – lead Adolfo back to power at the head of his newly formed UCD party, the Unión de Centro Democrático). With this mandate, he ordered the Constitution to be drafted and signed into law; shortly afterwards, he dissolved Parliament and announced new elections, as per the new law.

This 1979 election wasn’t quite as successful for Suárez, and he had to form a coalition government. The coalition got to him, and in January 1981 he made the shock announcement that he was resigning from the UCD and from his post as Prime Minister.

In fact, it was during the vote to confirm his successor Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo as PM that Tejero launched his 23-F coup, attempting to use the moment to install himself as the new Military President of the Republic. It failed – Juan Carlos on the outside refused to back the Military, and inside Congress, Adolfo Suárez stood up to Tejero. His role in stopping the coup has never been as widely recognised as the Kings, but it is without doubt that most Spaniards say that he stopped Tejero from carrying out his plans.

He was only 48 at this point.

He presented himself at the 1982 elections at the head of his new party, the CDS (Centro Democrático y Social), but was never more than a marginal figure in Spanish politics after that. He, and his previous party UCD, were completely eclipsed by the PSOE party, which was formed by many of the more socialist members of UCD.

He continued in politics until 1991, when he finally retired.  He was, and remained until his death, a firm personal friend of King Juan Carlos, who bestowed the title of Duke of Suárez upon him in 1981, and he later accumulated a number of other titles.

Suárez, who was always an intensely private man, started to become the target of the gossip press in 2000 after several public lapses. In 2005, his family announced that he was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, which had lead him to forget his past, and confessed that Adolfo could no longer remember being Prime Minister of Spain.

At his death on Sunday, he was 81.

Spaniards remember him fondly. At the time, he was perceived to be a member of the “old guard” and couldn’t stand up against the charm of newcomer Felipe Gonzalez, who swept to power for a decade with his PSOE party. But looking back on those PSOE years of corruption, the death squads, ETA and the rest, many Spaniards wonder if they made the right choice back them.

Not all is roses as Spain waits for his funeral: there is a dispute about the succession of the title of Duke. His eldest son Adolfo Suárez Illana has asked King Juan Carlos I for the title of Duke of Suárez, which by the law of succession of the nobility should be inherited by his niece Alejandra Suárez Romero, daughter of Mariam Suárez Illana, the eldest daughter of Adolfo Suárez González.

presidents of spain
Presidents of Spain: (left to right) Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, José María Aznar, Adolfo Suárez & Felipe González, in 1997

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