Spain’s Health Minister resigned on Tuesday to run as his party’s main candidate in Catalonia’s regional elections, a political bet by the ruling socialists as the country grapples with a record number of coronavirus cases.
The party seeks to capitalize on what supporters say is the reputation Salvador Illa has forged over the past year as a calm voice in Spain’s hyper-partisan debate.
But critics paint the 54-year-old as an opportunist who left the health ministry at a precarious time: infection rates are higher in Spain than in any other major EU country and have increased rapidly.
“He is leaving the state at the worst time, with record infections,” said Carolina Telechea, MP for the pro-independence Catalan Republican left. “He’s more interested in votes than in life.”
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Mr Illa said he “will always be where I can help the most,” adding that recent data indicated that rates were starting to drop.
Mr Illa was a relatively unknown Catalan socialist official before he was chosen by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to join the national government a year ago, his profile rising as the Covid-19 crisis worsened. He will fight the Catalan elections – scheduled for next month – largely thanks to his record as Spain’s health minister.
He recently refused to answer calls from regions in Spain for more powers tackling the coronavirus and the evolution of the pandemic over the next two weeks could shape the election outcome.
Currently, Spain registers 885 infections per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days – its highest contagion rate pandemic, although data from the first wave is incomplete.
The timing of the Catalan vote has not yet been settled. While nearly all other major parties are in favor of postponing it to May 30 due to the health emergency, Socialists are keen to see it take place on the originally scheduled February 14 date and the courts have held up. present pronounced against the postponement.
Mr Sánchez hopes to defuse tensions with Catalan nationalists after a turbulent decade in which the regional parliament issued a unilateral declaration of independence following an illegal referendum in 2017, prominent separatist politicians were imprisoned for sedition and Madrid imposed a period of direct domination.
The last regional elections, in December 2017, returned a narrow victory for the independence camp – with less than 50% of the vote but a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament – leading to a persistent deadlock with the central government in Madrid.
Some recent polls, but not all, have given the Socialists a narrow lead – an apparent indication of an ‘Illa effect’, with the party closely followed by the two main separatist groups, the Catalan Republican Left and Ensemble pour la Catalunya.
“The separatist parties act as if they have a dangerous rival who can really win – which transformed the electoral landscape of the previous elections, which were seen as plebiscites on independence,” said Oriol Bartomeus, professor of politics . at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “But the evolution of the pandemic could really be the factor hurting Illa and the Socialists.”
No party expects to win a majority and Mr Bartomeus said the positions of the three main parties would go a long way in deciding whether the pro-independence parties can form another government – and how harsh such an administration would be.
Among the two major pro-independence parties, the Catalan Republican left, whose leader Oriol Junqueras is still in prison for his role in the events of 2017, is more willing to cooperate with the Socialists and has supported Mr Sánchez in crucial votes in Madrid . In contrast, Ensemble pour la Catalogne, led by Carles Puigdemont, a former regional leader who fled the country rather than being arrested, favors a more confrontational approach.
Together For Catalonia accused Illa of “complicity with fascism” for his past support for direct power.