Spain PM hoping ex-minister turns page in Catalan vote

Illa is heading the ticket for Spain's ruling Socialist party (PSC) in Catalonia's regional election
Illa is heading the ticket for Spain's ruling Socialist party (PSC) in Catalonia's regional election LLUIS GENE AFP/File
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Barcelona (AFP)

Unknown before the pandemic, Spain's former health minister Salvador Illa is hoping to unseat Catalonia's ruling separatists in Sunday's regional election, embodying Madrid's desire to turn the page on the independence crisis.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez hopes a win by Illa, who is heading the ticket for his ruling Socialist party, will de-escalate tensions after a turbulent few years in which the Catalan parliament briefly declared independence following a banned 2017 referendum, sparking Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

During Catalonia's last election in December that year, the Socialists came fourth but have risen in the polls since Illa's unexpected nomination in December.

The PSC (Socialist Party of Catalonia) is now running neck-and-neck with the two separatist formations that have governed the northeastern region since 2015.

But the election could see a record low turnout due to the pandemic, which has caused thousands to refuse the call to staff voting stations.

While Sanchez came to power in 2018, thanks in part to the support of some Catalan separatists whom his minority government still relies on to pass legislation, he has not hidden his desire to remove them from power in the wealthy region.

"We must turn the page after a lost decade," Illa, 54, told La Vanguardia daily at the weekend, saying his aim was to win and form "a government of change in Catalonia".

- 'Unexpected protagonist' -

A former mayor of La Roca del Valles, his industrial hometown near Barcelona, Illa has spent most of his career with the PSC and helped negotiate separatist support for Sanchez's second term last year.

Illa's soft-spoken yet effective approach prompted Sanchez to nominate him as health minister in January 2020, just weeks before the pandemic hit Spain.

"Normally the health minister does not have a high profile. But with the pandemic he became more important, a 'superminister', an unexpected protagonist," said political analyst Euprepio Padula of Padula&Partners consultancy.

Spain has been badly hit by the pandemic and even if Illa's management of the health crisis "can be criticised", he has nonetheless demonstrated "a capacity for negotiation, for calm and tranquility," Padula said.

"This is rare in Spain," where political polarisation has become the norm, he added.

A region of around 7.8 million people which has its own distinct language, Catalonia remains deeply divided over the issue of independence, with 45.1 percent in favour and 49.9 percent against according to a December poll.

- 'Divisive' -

If the Socialists win, Illa will need his negotiating skills as no party is expected to win an outright majority of 68 in the 135-seat regional parliament, meaning the eventual outcome will depend on deal-making.

And while Catalonia's two main separatist parties have been deeply divided since the 2017 independence crisis, polls suggest the hardline JxC -- "Together for Catalonia" -- and the more moderate ERC could once again cobble together a majority to rule again.

Illa, whose father was a textile factory worker, would prefer to forge a government with the hard-left Podemos which is the junior partner in Spain's ruling Socialist-led coalition.

But even then, the two parties look set to fall short of a majority, meaning the PSC would need the support of ERC -- as has happened in the national parliament.

Until now, however, Illa and ERC have rejected that option.

"Their goal is independence and we don't think that's the solution," he told La Vanguardia, saying the separatist drive has been a "divisive approach which has impoverished Catalonia and smeared its reputation".