BARCELONA – As the head of Spain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Salvador Illa transformed from a mostly unknown, bespectacled civil servant into a household figure who won both accolades and criticism for his level-headed, soft-spoken approach.
The former Spanish health minister now hopes to become a political disrupter in the country’s Catalonia region when voters there go to the polls this weekend.
Illa will lead the ticket of the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for the Feb. 14 regional election in a bid to bring some calm to Catalonia, which for the past decade has been run by politicians committed to breaking the region away from the rest of Spain.
Polls show that Illa, 54, has helped boost the Socialist Party’s popularity, and rivals are targeting him as the man to beat for the job of Catalonia's president.
Illa is convinced that the pandemic, which has killed over 62,000 across Spain, has made some pro-secession Catalans refocus on health and the common good.
“There are episodes in the life of a nation, a people, or a community, when despite having very different political positions and opinions, it is necessary that we come together. The pandemic is one of these moments,” Illa told The Associated Press.
“I sense that in Catalonia the majority want to turn the page after 10 wasted years,” he said. “(They) want to dedicate our energies to the problems we face today, to protecting our health, reviving our economy and making sure no one gets left behind.”
With political loyalties fragmented on both sides of the Catalan independence debate, no party is expected to win an outright majority of 68 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament.
Illa’s chances of becoming the first non-separatist leader of Catalonia since 2010 will rest on his Socialists doing well and getting support from other parties. He has ruled out forming a government with any pro-independence parties.
But there's also a strong chance that pro-secession forces could retain power after a race that is too close to call and whose outcome will depend on deal-making that could take weeks.
Critics of Illa believe Spain's response to the pandemic was too slow and disorganized and claim he used the Health Ministry, which he left last month, as a platform to launch his campaign.
Separatist rivals are aiming their attacks on Illa’s commitment to keep Catalonia, the wealthy region that includes Barcelona, as part of Spain.
“The solution of Illa is amnesia,” said Pere Aragonès, the acting regional president of Catalonia and the leading candidate from the pro-secession Republican Left of Catalonia party.
Aragonès and other separatists are campaigning hard on the secessionists’ failed breakaway attempt in 2017 that left several leaders in prison.
“I don’t want to turn the page on. We cannot ignore that they are political prisoners and exiles,” Aragonès said.
Illa’s approach contrasts with the voices that dominate much of Catalonia's politics. Separatist leaders, such as former regional President Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution for the failed 2017 secession attempt, have consistently blamed Spain as the cause of Catalonia’s alleged ills.
Quim Torra, who was removed from office last year for violating election laws, suggested that an independent Catalonia would have reacted to the pandemic with more agility.
Illa firmly disputes that notion.
“That is not true, because we have seen how different countries have had to work together during the pandemic,” Illa said.
Sánchez, along with the former head of Catalan Socialists, Miquel Iceta, picked Illa to run.
“We need a reasonable, serene and calm candidate who can heal wounds, restore Catalonia to what it was, and mend the bonds of affection among Catalans and between Catalonia and Spain,” Sánchez said at a campaign event.
The global health emergency has had varying political impacts across Europe.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, who despite high approval ratings for steering the country through the West’s first coronavirus lockdown, recently resigned amid a power struggle over how Italy would use its European Union pandemic recovery funds.
While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s authority has been shaken by the U.K.'s COVID-19 death toll, which at over 113,000 is the highest in Europe, his government has been praised for its quick vaccine rollout.
In Germany, Health Minister Jens Spahn has fared well thanks to the country’s comparatively successful initial effort to curb infections. Bavarian governor Markus Soeder also benefitted from taking tough action to keep virus case numbers down and is viewed as a possible contender to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel later this year.
But Illa is one of the first politicians to have his reputation as an efficient, caring manager put to the test during an election.
A former mayor of La Roca del Vallès, a village near Barcelona, Illa had spent most of his career with Catalonia's Socialist Party in second-line positions before Sánchez tapped him as health minister last year. He had no experience in health care and took over weeks before the pandemic began its savage sweep through Europe.
Illa acknowledges that he and other Spanish officials “reacted late because we did not see the dimension of what was heading toward us.” But he said even when he faced accusations of incompetence from rivals, he assumed their goal “was to save lives.”
"That is how I understand politics. It is very different from what we have seen in the past 10 years of the so-called politics of polarization,” Illa said.
He said he has lost friends to COVID-19 and has experienced the social strains the secession debate has caused in Catalonia. Illa credited his university degree in philosophy with instilling central values in him: “self-control, measure, modesty and prudence.”
“When you assume a humble attitude and abandon arrogant positions, you can learn,” he said. “You can recognize that you do not know all there is to know about this virus, nor how to fight it. And then you start to learn. I think this pandemic has been a lesson in humility.”
Jill Lawless in London, Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.