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Spanish Socialists Elect Almunia As Leader

The Socialists, eager for new blood to reclaim the power they lost to conservatives last year, elected a former Cabinet minister Sunday to replace outgoing party leader Felipe Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, prime minister from 1982-1996, gave delegates at the party’s 34th congress the chance to choose a new leader when he unexpectedly announced Friday he would step down after 23 years.

Joaquin Almunia, the Socialist’s parliamentary spokesman and a Gonzalez confidant, won the post with 73 percent of the votes cast. Almunia, 49, is seen as a unifying force in the party, which hopes to unseat conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

“We have to leave here today ready to reinvigorate our party and defeat the right wing,” Almunia said.

In Gonzalez’s inner circle since the late-1970s, Almunia became labor minister in 1982 and head of the administration ministry four years later. Although born in the northeast Basque region, Almunia has been a deputy from Madrid since 1979.

In the aftermath of the Socialists’ 1996 defeat to Aznar’s Popular Party, Almunia’s position as parliamentary spokesman thrust him into the political limelight as Gonzalez gradually took a lower profile.

He has vowed to unify the party’s various factions and open talks with the United Left coalition, whose leader often clashed with Gonzalez.

As party leader, Almunia must convince voters that the Socialists are more than just an extension of the man voters came simply to know as “Felipe.”

“The renovation of our party has already begun - we are not in a transition,” he said at a press conference after the convention.

Almunia was the only candidate nominated.

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