Catalonia’s centre-right Convèrgencia i Unió party on Sunday regained control of the regional parliament after seven years in opposition, although an absolute majority eluded it.

The party, representing the moderately nationalistic middle ground of the autonomous region of 7.4m people, declared victory about 90 minutes after polls closed at 8pm local time, claiming around 38 per cent of the popular vote, for 62 seats out of a total 135.

Artur Mas, the party leader, would become premier of Catalonia, the party said.

The main loser was the Catalan socialist party, which has led an ill-fated and fractious three-party governing coalition since 2003. It ended up with 28 seats compared with 37 after the 2006 elections. José Montilla, the regional premier, conceded defeat shortly after 10pm, and announced he would not stand for the party leadership at the next executive ballot.

The vote was marked by a relatively strong turnout. and was set against a backdrop of high unemployment, low or negative economic growth, continued market turbulence and calls for more autonomy from Madrid.

The region, among the wealthiest in the country, has long complained of having to subsidise less productive parts of the Spain, and has clamoured constantly for more control of its own finances.

Regionalist fervour also fired up fringe movements, such as Solidaritat Catalana, a small separatist party led by Joan Laporta, the former Barcelona Football Club president. It picked up four seats to take a place in the regional chamber.

The rightwing Popular party, which leads the national opposition against socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, also claimed a small victory. It replaced the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a governing coalition partner, as the third political force in the region by campaigning against illegal immigration and Catalan nationalism. The ERC, meanwhile, lost half its 21 seats as part of a broader rejection of the coalition’s economic management.

For voters the most important issue remained the European economic crisis and its harmful effects on Catalonia.

Catalonia’s economy is larger than Portugal’s but many of its municipalities cannot pay their bills and the regional government, the most heavily indebted in Spain, was forced to sell high-yield bonds to citizens last month because it has been squeezed out of international markets.

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