El Gordo trumps politics as lottery fever grips Spain

MADRID (Reuters) - Lottery fever gripped Spain on Tuesday as thousands celebrated wins in the El Gordo draw with prizes totaling 2.24 billion euros ($2.45 billion), offering a welcome distraction from political concerns after an inconclusive election.

Slideshow ( 8 images )

Winners from across the country flocked to local retail outlets to toast their good fortune with bottles of sparkling cava in the traditional Christmas lottery, the world’s largest.

This year’s top prize - the eponymous El Gordo, or The Fat One - went to the coastal tourist town of Roquetas de Mar, in the southern province of Almeria, where a group of residents will share at least 452 million euros ($496 million).

Every year millions of Spaniards club together with friends, family or co-workers to each buy fractions of the same ticket in the over 200-year-old lottery which, on winning numbers, pays out 400,000 euros for every 20 euros wagered.

This year’s draw, like others a huge collective affair, provided a welcome distraction from Sunday’s national election, which plunged the country into a political stalemate and ended almost four decades of two-party rule.

Laujar, another Almeria town of 1,600 people, won 320 million euros.

“Almost everyone in the town has a share, and even if it’s split between everybody, it will go to working people, to those that need the money a lot,” its mayor told Europa Press as people danced in the street.

Spaniards spent close to 2.6 billion euros on tickets this year, according to the government agency that runs the draw, with some waiting for hours in queues that snaked around city blocks.

Many then stayed glued to TV screens for hours more as schoolchildren plucked lottery balls from a rotating drum, singing out the resulting numbers in a chant that filled offices and homes.

Ticket sales were higher than last year, suggesting a loosening of the purse strings in a country that is rebounding from an economic crisis that left nearly one in four workers out of a job.

($1 = 0.9145 euros)

Reporting by Angus Berwick; Editing by Richard Balmforth and John Stonestreet