Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been elected leader of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, taking a big step towards a possible re-election bid for the presidency.

The 59-year-old collected 64.5 percent of the vote on Saturday to defeat former government ministers Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton with a margin that some analysts said was below expectations.

After casting his ballot, Sarkozy said his return was "not a personal question."

"It is about the situation in the country, the situation of my political family, the necessity to prepare an alternative, huge problems arising in our country."

Nearly 270,000 dues-paying party members were eligible to vote on Saturday.

Sarkozy has used the UMP leadership as a springboard before. He also won it in 2004 - with 85 percent of the vote - and built a ground game that helped propel him to victory in the presidential race three years later.

After serving one term in office, he lost elections in 2012 to Socialist Francois Hollande who is now the least-popular French leader in modern history largely for his failed promise to bring down a double-digit unemployment rate.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies