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Zapatero wins second term with tiny majority

Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, squeaked through for a second term in general elections yesterday with a wafer-thin majority closely matching predictions and his victory four years ago.

With 97 per cent of votes counted last night, the Socialists won 169 seats, 44 per cent, and the PP 154 seats, 40 per cent. The result polarised Spain into, in effect, a two-party system, with an unprecedented marginalisation of smaller parties.

"Thank you, thank you for giving this clear victory for the Socialist Party. We've worked hard. It was worth it," Mr Zapatero told ecstatic supporters outside Socialist Party headquarters in Madrid. "Four years ago you told me not to fail you. I never forgot that."

Mr Zapatero said he had received congratulations from his conservative rival, Mariano Rajoy. "I want to thank Mariano Rajoy. He has earned my respect. Spaniards have ... opened a new stage, without tension or confrontation. I will consolidate the things we've done well, and correct mistakes," he promised.

The conservative Popular Party spokesman, Pio Escudero, conceded defeat with some 20 per cent of the vote still uncounted. "I want to congratulate the Socialist Party ... It seems that their victory is clear. But that the PP has achieved a great improvement in the number of votes and seats."

The victory was much narrower than socialists had hoped, and leaves Mr Zapatero well short of the absolute majority of 176 seats he craved. It barely liberates him from having to make pacts with smaller parties. The victory amounts to an endorsement of his record reforms, and of conceding more powers to Spain's autonomous regions.

For Mr Rajoy, the second consecutive defeat marks a crushing setback and is likely to increase pressure on him to quit as party chief.

With the marginalisation of fringe parties, the results have produced what a disappointed leader of the United Left party Gaspar Llamazares called "a tsunami of bi-party-ism". Conservative regional nationalist parties including Catalonia's Convergence and Union and the Basque nationalists party held up however, with 10 and six seats respectively. The Galician Nationalist Bloc kept its two seats.

But support for radical nationalist groupings in Catalonia and the Basque Country crumbled. The pro-independence Catalan Republican Left slumped from eight to three seats. The pro-communist United Left (IU) dropped from five to two seats. Conservative regional parties in Aragon and Navarra also lost seats.

Socialists started celebrating at party headquarters in Madrid soon after polls closed, and within an hour the street outside was jammed with euphoric supporters. "Zapatero, you didn't fail us," they chanted. The mood cooled as the gap narrowed but renewed to give Mr Zapatero a rapturous reception.

Jubilation dispelled the grief that had overshadowed the elections since the shooting of a former Socialist councillor in the Basque country on Friday. The bursting of Eta gunmen upon the scene brought terrorist violence to the top of the political agenda, and is thought to have spurred Spaniards to a high turnout. The general election coincided with regional elections in Andalucia, in which Socialists retained their fourth successive absolute majority.