Adolfo Suarez, Spain's first democratically elected prime minister after decades of right-wing rule under Gen. Francisco Franco, died Sunday in a Madrid hospital. He was 81.
Suarez died of complications from Alzheimer's disease, a family spokesman said.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy 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 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 … 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 next year.
Under Suarez's leadership the new parliament approved a democratic constitution in 1978, a milestone that enabled him and his party to win reelection the next 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 authoritarian rule from 1939 to 1975.
Suarez was considered a skilled crisis manager during the transition to democracy but proved to be less successful as a day-to-day organizer. Having lost the support of his party, he resigned in 1981.
Suarez ran for election again in 1982 and lost. He eventually formed another centrist party, but it remained marginal and he retired from politics in 1991.
Born Sept. 25, 1932, Suarez studied law at Spain's Salamanca University and entered politics after graduating.
He is survived by daughter Sonsoles, a former TV news anchor, and son Adolfo, a politician with the conservative Popular Party, and two other children.