Spain’s health minister leaves to run as socialist candidate in Catalan elections

Illa’s decision, which was announced on 30 December, has been criticised by many due to the impact of the third COVID-19 wave in Spain, and - as many political parties stressed - it is not the best moment for a “captain” to leave the ship in troubled waters. [EFE/Mariscal]

Spain’s health minister, Salvador Illa, officially resigned on Tuesday (26 January), after just over a year in office, to run in the upcoming elections in Catalonia scheduled for 14 February. Illa’s exit prompted some criticism, as well as a slight reshuffle in the Spanish coalition government, EURACTIV’s partner EFE reported.

Illa is a member of PSC – the Catalan branch of Spain’s socialist party PSOE – which is currently the favourite in the race, according to a fresh opinion poll by Gad3 for the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia.

Currently running in second was Laura Borrás of separatist party Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia, JxCat), while vice-president of the regional government, Pere Aragonès, of the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), came in third.

However, even if Illa’s PSC party were to win the elections, it will be very difficult for him to oust the pro-independence parties. The government of Catalonia is currently led by a coalition of the ERC and the Junts per Catalunya, who are unlikely to support the PSC.

A very controversial decision

Illa’s decision, announced on 30 December, has been criticised by many because of the impact of the ongoing third COVID-19 wave in Spain, and – as opposition political parties have argued – because it is not the best moment for a ‘captain’ to leave the ship in troubled waters.

The centre-right (Partido Popular, PP), the centre-liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens), the far-right Vox, and PSOE’s government coalition partner Unidas-Podemos have all fiercely criticised Illa’s move.

The pandemic situation has worsened as Spain reported 93,822 new COVID-19 infections and 767 related deaths on Monday, according to health ministry figures. The latest figure of infections – with data collected last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – represents a new record, higher than the figures reported at the height of pandemic last March.

The challenge is to avoid the collapse of the Spanish public health system, particularly in intensive care units (ICU) in hospitals. 

However, prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, says that he plans to provide full support to Illa during the election campaign, which starts on Thursday, provided the difficult health situation allows for it.

Election date controversy and light reshuffle in Madrid

Initially, the date for the elections in Catalonia, one of Spain’s most prosperous regions, was set for 14 February.

However, the Catalan High Court (Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Catalunya, TSJC) has until 8 February to modify the date and could reschedule the ballot for 30 May – the preferred date of the Catalan government.

Illas’s exit also prompted a slight reshuffle of the executive.

Carolina Darias, who was territorial policy minister, is likely to take over as the new health minister. Her current position will probably be taken on by Miquel Iceta, the leader of the PSC and a close ally of Sánchez.

The handover will be announced on Tuesday, and the new ministers will be sworn in on Wednesday.

[Edited by Daniel Eck]

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