MADRID — Politicians and public figures across Spain on Monday paid tribute to the late Manuel Fraga Iribarne, who founded Spain's ruling conservative party and was the last surviving minister from Gen. Francisco Franco's right-wing regime.
The governing Popular Party issued a statement saying his death Sunday at age 89 "constitutes the loss of one of the fathers of the Spanish Constitution and a key person in the transition to democracy."
"We all regret the death of Manuel Fraga, and in the history of Spain he stands as one of the great figures of the last century and of the one we are in," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said after visiting the family home in Madrid where a wake was held for Fraga.
King Juan Carlos sent a telegram of condolence to the family highlighting Fraga's "loyalty to Spain" and describing him as "a great servant of the state."
Fraga, who had been seriously ill for some time with respiratory problems, died at his house. His remains are to be taken to his native northwestern region of Galicia for burial Tuesday.
In a career spanning 60 years, Fraga served as Franco's information and tourism minister and as Spain's interior minister after the dictator died in 1975. But the job he coveted most — being Spain's prime minister — always eluded him.
Still, his influence on the country remained lasting.
Most Franco ministers quickly faded into obscurity after democracy was restored in 1978, but Fraga soldiered on. He helped write the country's post-Franco, democratic Constitution that was passed in 1978.
Although he repeatedly failed to be elected prime minister, he nudged Franco loyalists toward the political center, founded what is now the Popular Party and groomed Jose Maria Aznar to replace him as leader of the Spanish right in 1989.
In the post-Franco years, he ran his native Galicia region with a tight grip for 15 years and then settled into a seat in the Spanish Senate.
The opposition Socialist party said it wished to express its "profound respect" for Fraga.
"Democrats will always remember gratefully the work he did as a founding father of the Spanish Constitution in 1978," the party said.
To the Spanish left, Fraga was a reviled and outspoken reminder of a right-wing regime that kept Spain isolated from Europe and the rest of the world for decades. In Galicia, critics say, he ruled despotically, manipulating a conservative political culture based on patronage to stay in power.
Veteran Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo described him as "a man of the right wing, authoritarian and stubborn in his ideas and attitudes." But he praised Fraga's talent in adapting to changing times.
Defenders, however, note that Fraga promulgated a Franco-era law that did away with media censorship — seen as a hint of change in the hardline regime. As tourism minister, Fraga worked to open up Spain to the outside world and bring in cash-laden visitors. A famous tourism slogan — "Spain is different" — which morphed into a popular Spanish saying was coined under Fraga's watch.
He is also credited with transforming Galicia — traditionally one of Spain's poorest, most backward regions — by building modern roads, bridges and other infrastructure, much of it paid for with EU funds. He boosted tourism and promoted Galicia's separate language and culture during his reign as president there from 1990 to 2005.
In a 2001 press luncheon, Fraga offered no apologies for his part in Spain's four decades of dictatorship.
"One cannot choose the period of history in which one lives," Fraga said, before quickly changing the subject.
Ciaran Giles and Harold Heckle contributed to this report.