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Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo: Pragmatic prime minister of Spain

Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo was Spanish prime minister for just 21 months, but his brief premiership – and Spain's fledgling democracy – would have been stifled at birth if an attempted military coup that interrupted his inauguration had succeeded.

Calvo-Sotelo lacked the charisma of his predecessor Adolfo Suárez and his successor Felipe González, but this discreet, cultured, conservative man played a crucial role in steering Spain through one of the most nail-biting episodes in the country's post-Franco transition.

Spain in 1981 was in economic crisis. Eta Basque separatists killed some 100 victims a year. And military barracks resounded to what the press at the time called "the rattle of sabres". Calvo-Sotelo was the designated – not, therefore, popularly elected – successor to Suarez, who had resigned as prime minister amid the disintegration of his moderate conservative Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD).

A devoutly Catholic product of the dictatorship, Calvo-Sotelo was among those seeking to dismantle the authoritarian state after Franco's death in 1975. Parliament, which had approved a democratic constitution in 1978, was installing its new prime minister on a grey 23 February 1981 – a ritual in which each MP calls out their name and their vote for or against – when Lt-Col Antonio Tejero burst into the chamber firing his pistol, and ordered everyone to the floor.

The ensuing chaos and uncertainty shook the nation, which steadied only when King Juan Carlos appeared on television to order the rebel officers back to the barracks. The months that followed were a time of fear. Calvo-Sotelo ensured that the rebels were tried and punished, and resisted pressure to treat them leniently.

He also resisted strong pressure to occupy, ie invade, the Basque Country, an adventure that could have reopened the bloodbath of the civil war. Instead, supported by the socialist opposition leader Felipe González, Calvo-Sotelo devolved power to Spain's restive autonomous regions, in a pragmatic, flexible formula that held up for the next 25 years.

He also piloted various progressive laws initiated by his predecessor, including the divorce law – odious to Catholic sensibilities, but massively popular.

Calvo-Sotelo led Spain's negotiations to join Nato, which most Spaniards opposed. But the Tejero coup attempt reinforced his – and others' – belief that being inside the Atlantic alliance would stiffen Spain's democratic institutions and curb interventionist instincts among army officers.

In general elections of October 1982, Calvo-Sotelo and the remnants of his fractious UCD were swept to oblivion by the landslide victory of Felipe Gonzalez's socialists. That historic victory marked the consolidation of Spain's democracy; the military suffered a blow to its credibility that took decades to recover, and Spaniards finally started to believe that dictatorship was a thing of the past.

Calvo-Sotelo, the first of Spain's five post-Franco prime ministers to die, came from a traditional, moneyed family whose political sympathies ranged from right to left. He married the daughter of a Franco minister; his uncle, José Calvo-Sotelo, was a minister in the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. His niece, Mercedes Cabrera, is the socialist Education Minister.

A Catholic Nationalist militant in his youth, Calvo-Sotelo is reputed to have joined protests against the screening in Spain of the 1946 film Gilda, in which Rita Hayworth removes her gloves in an erotically charged, if limited, striptease. Ink and stones were hurled at the screen. But in his political maturity, Spaniards used the English expression to describe Calvo-Sotelo as "a safe pair of hands".

Elizabeth Nash

Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo y Bustelo, politician: born Madrid 14 April 1926; Prime Minister of Spain 1981-82; married 1954 Pilar Ibáñez-Martí-Mellado (seven sons, one daughter); died Madrid 3 May 2008.