Spain’s former Health Minister set to be Catalonia’s new President as PSC wins regional elections

Updated 15 February: As I posted last month, Spain’s former Health Secretary Salvador Illa stood down because he was a candidate for President of Catalonia, his home region, in yesterday’s elections. Pro-independence parties have done well, with the far-right Vox performing much better than expected, but exit polls show that the winner is almost certain to be the PSC (Catalonian Socialist Party), and so our former national Health Secretary is set to be the President of the region.

Turnout was low, probably because of the pandemic, and the opposition Parties could yet form enough of a coalition to make life difficult for the ruling Party but for now, the Socialists have their tails up, and reaction has been swift. Pedro Sánchez congratulated his ex-minister and expressed relief and joy that the region might have some stability now amidst the turmoil both of calls for independence and the covid pandemic. Here in the Canaries, regional President Ángel Torres and Tenerife President Pedro Martín, both Socialists themselves, congratulated Illa and expressed their hopes that the election result will bring greater stability and change for the better in Catalonia.

One sector of the political landscape that won’t see either greater stability or change for the better in the results is the centre right, with the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos having an absolute mare of it. The PP, indeed, have even been bettered by Vox in terms of seats won … imagine a situation where UKIP had more MPs in Parliament than the Conservatives! Meanwhile, Ciudadanos, founded some fifteen years ago as a brand new “Citizens” Party in this very region, has done even worse, but the writing has been on the wall since the General Election a couple of years ago where it was all but wiped out.

It seems that wherever one looks, the middle ground is collapsing as centrist Parties move right to try to occupy the increasing ground taken by extreme or far-right groups. Whether this is done cynically to try to capture polarised votes or to outmanoeuvre extremism, its danger is the potential for mainstreaming such views and counter-productively increasing the appeal of the far right. In France only a few days ago Marine Le Pen was taken by surprise in a television debate for next year’s elections when President Emmanuel Macron’s own Home Secretary accused her of being too soft on Islam, leaving the National Rally (Rassemblement national, formerly the Front National) leader visibly shocked and defending an individual’s right to freedom of religious expression! In Catalonia at least, and for now at least, the left has got its victory, and stability in the short term seems relatively assured. For now.

Updated 26 January: As expected, Pedro Sánchez has announced this afternoon that Carolina Darias has been appointed as national Health Secretary. Darias, who had covid herself last year, is a Canarian from Las Palmas who gained a law degree here in Tenerife’s La Laguna University, and as I said yesterday, she has also been heading the Inter-Territorial covid response Council, and so is very aware of the condition and situation of all social and legal policy aspects in the archipelago, as well as the other Spanish regions. She is a significant political appointment to lead Spain’s Health Department at a time of crisis, and one that will please many in Canarian political circles. Darias’ Territorial Policy brief will be taken over by Miquel Iceta Llorens, ironically currently First Secretary of the Socialist Party of Catalonia, the region at the root of the reshuffle because Salvador Illa will now be standing for election as its president.

Original post 25 January: Many will recognize the name of Salvador Illa, Spain’s Health Minister who has led the covid response through the past year. Now, Illa is standing down because he is running for office in upcoming elections for President of Catalonia, his home region. As many will understand, the role is a significant one given regional calls for independence that the national Government considers unconstitutional. To some extent, it would be akin to a leading Party in Westminster putting an anti-independence candidate in place to contest a Scottish leadership election with heated discussion about independence on the table. In any case, tomorrow will be Illa’s last day in post and after the regular Cabinet meeting we will, therefore, be awaiting the naming of a new national Health Secretary.

This won’t affect the covid response because, as we’ve seen, health is a devolved power with overarching policy decided nationally but then administered by regional Governments with powers to adapt within limits to local situations. Moreover, this has been known about for several weeks already, and Illa’s likeliest successor is Carolina Darias, currently the Secretary of State for Territorial Policy – a role that coordinates the sometimes complicated liaison between state and regions. Darias has therefore knowledge of the whole of Spain, and its devolved powers issues, and has been, to some extent, shadowing Illa over recent weeks. She is well up to the job, in other words, not least because she heads the Inter-Territorial Council which coordinates the state health system’s response to covid through the country’s regions. We will know more details over the next few days.