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Spain's opposition Socialist party elected Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba as its secretary general on Saturday, replacing former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as party leader.

Rubalcaba beat Carme Chacon by 22 votes after 956 delegates present in the southwestern city of Seville for the party's 38th congress voted, having first listened to the two candidates' speeches.

"Colleagues, we are a strong party," Rubalcaba said. "I feel an enormous pride here and now." The new party leader added, "This is an act of unity, I am now the secretary general of all Socialists."

Rubalcaba, a seasoned politician and former interior minister, had led his party to a heavy defeat against the ruling conservative Popular Party in November's general elections.

Most people in Spain credit Rubalcaba with coordinating the sustained legal and police battle that has brought Basque separatist group ETA to the point where it declared in October it had laid down its weapons for good.

At 60 years old, Rubalcaba is 20 years older than Chacon, who looked crestfallen after the election result was announced by Jose Antonio Grinan, who chaired the party congress.

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Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.

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