Conservatives gain in Catalan poll

Madrid - Catalonia's veteran nationalist leader, Jordi Pujol, has been unexpectedly stripped of the absolute majority he had enjoyed in the regional parliament since 1984 after voters punished him for his pact with Felipe Gonzalez's scandal-ridden Socialist government in Madrid, writes Elizabeth Nash.

Mr Pujol's Convergence and Union (CiU) party, whose share of the vote in Sunday's regional election dropped from 46.2 to 41 per cent, remains, with 60 seats, the favourite among Catalonia's 5 million voters. The conservative People's Party (PP) won 13.1 per cent and increased its strength in the Catalan parliament from seven to 17 seats, despite a campaign that made few concessions to regional sensibilities.

The PP is now the third force in Catalonia, supplanting the pro-independence Republican Left (ERC). More importantly, it has made the breakthrough in hostile terrain that could deliver a decisive advantage in national elections due in March.

The Catalan Socialists, with 24.8 per cent, fell back slightly from 46 seats to 34, but avoided the collapse that was widely predicted in the opinion polls. It was Mr Pujol who paid the heaviest price for supporting Mr Gonzalez.

The PP's leader, Jose Maria Aznar, who played a prominent role in the campaign, is now expected to put out friendlier feelers to Mr Pujol's party. The PP is favoured to win March's general elections, but may need CiU support to rule. Mr Pujol's setback on Sunday makes it all the more likely that the next government in Madrid will be a conservative one.