With 85 per cent of votes counted, the PP had 38.9 per cent of the vote and the Socialists 37.4 per cent, a difference of only 15 MPs. The pro- communist United Left won 10.5 per cent. The result was a blow for the pollsters who had consistently given the PP an advantage of up to 10 percentage points.
The PP's deputy leader, Alvaro Cascos, claiming victory last night, told supporters outside the party's headquarters in Madrid: "The old dream of the Popular Party that you've been working towards for the last 20 years has come true tonight."
Ecstatic PP supporters besieged their party headquarters, popping bottles of sparkling wine in a riotous street party soon after the close of voting. But the close result prompted the Socialist spokesman, Joaquin Almunia, to warn that the PP would need to secure deals with other parties to establish a stable government. No one ruled out the prospect.
The Socialists' vote held up unexpectedly well and gave them 141 MPs, compared with the PP's 156. As the results came through, the initially subdued atmosphere at Socialist headquarters became increasingly euphoric. The party, though defeated, was not destroyed and passes into opposition with its forces intact.
The nationalist Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) party won 15 seats and the conservative Basque Nationalist Party five. Both held their ground in the face of a strong PP challenge. Either could be potential PP partners in one-off deals or a formal pact. But each would extract their pound of flesh and may expect to maintain their influence in Madrid.
The Socialists won the regional elections in Andalucia, which were also held yesterday, narrowly ahead of the PP. The turnout for the national poll was 78.1 per cent.
The Popular Party, formed out of the Popular Alliance, has in the six years Jose Maria Aznar has been running it made a determined attempt to ditch its Francoist origins and transform itself into a party of the centre. The process has been matched by the draining away of support for Felipe Gonzalez's scandal-stricken Socialist government.
An undistinguished campaign was notable more for the presence of showbusiness stars than political content. Mr Aznar's refusal to accept a face-to-face television debate with Mr Gonzalez was a shrewd move from his point of view but meant that political issues were never given a proper airing. Mr Aznar's meetings were triumphal rallies with drum majorettes, laser beams and Julio Iglesias and with speeches all but devoid of political content.
The Socialist campaign showed several lapses of touch: their videos showing frightening images of the right were probably counterproductive, and their choice of meeting halls that were often too small showed a lack of confidence.
Mr Gonzalez pushed himself to the limit to prevent his party from collapsing at the polls and, now liberated from the Moncloa Palace, he is likely to remain leader of the main opposition party.
Reflecting the high level of tension following recent Eta Basque terror attacks, security was tightened to the maximum with more than 100,000 police and civil guardsmen deployed throughout the country, particularly in Madrid. But for the first time, the army did not take part in the security operation.
The new parliament will assemble on 27 March when King Juan Carlos, in consultation with representatives of all the parliamentary groups, will nominate a prime minister who will submit his programme to both houses for approval. Approval given, the king will appoint him prime minister.
Mr Gonzalez's wife, Carmen Romero, has been transferring boxes and fishing rods from the Moncloa to a new house just outside Madrid for months. Part of Mr Gonzalez's extensive collection of bonsai trees will go with him, the rest he has donated to the botanical gardens.Reuse content