Going for Growth

Europe's most influential political leaders

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Europe has undergone huge changes over the last 50 years. The end of the Cold War, the expansion of the European Union from the original six to the current 28, and the introduction of a single currency have all helped turn the region into a global economic powerhouse rich in culture and diversity.

After the Conservative party's victory in the U.K. general election, and with several other European votes scheduled over the next few years, CNBC takes a look at some of Europe's most flamboyant, iconic and influential political leaders – past and present – to assess their impact on Europe and the world.

Do you agree with our choice? Nominate the leader who you think helped shape Europe on Twitter by using the hashtag #cnbcleaders.

Adolfo Suarez:

Gianni Ferrari | Cover | Getty Images

Spanish Prime Minister, 1976-81

The death of fascist leader Francisco Franco in 1975 after nearly 40 years in power heralded an uncertain and potentially bloody future for Spain.

However, Franco's chosen successor, Spanish King Juan Carlos I, opted to scrap the ultra-conservative dictatorship and appoint Adolfo Suarez (pictured right, with King Juan Carlos) – previously a member of the Francoist regime – to lead the country's transition from dictatorship to democracy.

In 1977, Suarez oversaw Spain's first democratic election in more than 30 years. He went on to win the election and continued to rule until 1981.

During Suarez' time in office, a constitution was introduced and political parties – including the Communist Party that had been crushed by Franco – were legalized.

Suarez was known for his charm and dark good looks as well as his democratizing zeal.

A host of tributes were paid