Spaniards pay respects to first post-Franco PM

Thousands of Spaniards flocked to the nation's parliament Monday to pay their respects to Adolfo Suarez, the prime minister who led the country to democracy after decades of dictatorship under Franco.

Onlookers applauded as eight soldiers wearing white gloves carried his flag-drapped coffin into the parliament building where in 1981 Suarez reacted coolly to a coup attempt.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his three living predecessors -- Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Jose Maria Aznar and Felipe Gonzalez -- stood at the steps of the parliament building's entrance as the coffin arrived to a solemn drum beat.

Suarez, Spain's first elected premier after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, died at the age of 81 on Sunday at a Madrid hospital after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for the past decade. He had been admitted March 17 with pneumonia.

Suarez was a leading player in Spain's historic "transition", the delicate dismantling of the dictatorship followed by democratic reforms that he and King Juan Carlos helped to achieve after Franco died.

Many Spaniards hail Suarez as a national hero because of his democratic reforms and his unruffled behaviour during an attempted coup on February 23, 1981, one of the most dramatic challenges to the country's new-found democracy.

When gun-toting soldiers took members of parliament hostage that day, Suarez was one of only three members of parliament who did not hide under their benches.

"I remember what happened on February 23. He seemed very courageous and calm. I want to thank him for what he did," said Juani Hernanz, an unemployed 52-year-old, at the parliament.

King Juan Carlos, supported by a cane after undergoing a hip operation in November, and Queen Sofia paid their respects to the former prime minister's family at the assembly.

The king laid Spain's highest civilian award -- a Royal Order of Carlos III gold chain -- close to the coffin before the doors to the assembly opened to the general public.

- 'a loyal friend' -

The monarch, Franco's successor as head of state, on Sunday hailed Suarez as "a loyal friend" in a televised address.

Juan Carlos had named Suarez prime minister in a new government in 1976 when the lawyer and politician was 44. The following year Suarez won Spain's first democratic elections 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.

"Adolfo Suarez was the right man at the right time: a statesman catapulted by circumstances to lead Spain's extraordinary transition from dictatorship to democracy," top selling daily newspaper El Pais wrote in an editorial.

Flags across the country were at half-staff as Spain declared three days of mourning.

Some people queued up outside the assembly from dawn to pay their respects.

"We must recognise how he together with the king carried out a 'transition' without traumas," said Jose Ignacio Valls, a law professor who took an early morning train from Barcelona to Madrid to pay his respects.

Despite widespread support for Suarez's democratic reforms, in time Suarez became overwhelmed by various perils: splits within his party, Spain's economic hardship, a dissenting military and regions, and armed attacks by the Basque separatist group ETA.

In 1981, two years after being elected for the second time, he resigned unexpectedly, just days before the attempted coup.

Suarez ran for leader again in 1982 at the head of a new centrist party, which later broke apart.

That election was won by Socialist Felipe Gonzalez, opening a new era of reforms.

Suarez retired from politics in 1991. He will be buried Tuesday in Avila, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of the Spanish capital, in the region where he was born.