AP Interview: Salvador Illa, Catalonia's quiet gamechanger

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Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) candidate in the upcoming Catalan elections Salvador Illa, reads notes ahead of an interview at his party headquarter in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. A former health minister of Spain hopes to become a quiet political disruptor in the country's Catalonia region when voters go to the polls next weekend. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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.