'We need to stitch Catalonia back together': Socialist candidate vows to heal divisions

Salvador Illa, Spain’s former health minister, is contesting the election on a promise of unity, despite continuing split over independence

Salvador Illa, the Socialist candidate in Sunday’s Catalan election, has promised to focus on improving public health care, reactivating the economy, and bringing the region together after “10 lost years of increased division” caused by failed, unilateral efforts to secede from the rest of Spain.

Illa, who served as Spain’s health minister before stepping down last month to contest the election for the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), said the coronavirus pandemic had underscored the need to overhaul and invest more in the region’s health system and to fix its economy.

“People are increasingly aware of the need for basic agreement over how to improve and reinforce our public health system, and of the need to reactivate the economy so that no one’s left behind and so that people can be helped to get back to work,” he said. “That needs to be done over the next few months or the next year because this a really crucial moment for reactivating the economy and making the best use of the European [Covid recovery] funds.”

Illa said he planned to inject €5bn into the Catalan health service in the next five years, to bring in more health workers and additional technological resources, and to strengthen the primary care system so that everyone could see a doctor within 48 hours.

“The pandemic has also shown the need for coordination between care homes for older people and health centres so they can work together,” he said. “There also needs to be a new mental health plan, because the pandemic and all the fatigue it’s brought have worsened mental health problems, which is something else we have to work on.”

An electoral poster of Salvador Illa in central Barcelona.
An electoral poster of Salvador Illa in central Barcelona. Photograph: Paco Freire/Sopa Images/Rex

Illa’s economic plans include creating 140,000 jobs within three years to help Catalonia recover its place as the region that generates the largest proportion of Spain’s GDP. “Since 2018, it’s lost that to the Madrid region,” he said. “I want to work with the Spanish government on projects using European funds in the automotive, tourist and chemical engineering sectors, all of which are very important economic areas.”

Illa, who served as mayor of the Catalan town where he was born before moving into regional and national politics, also said swift action was needed to heal the divisions in Catalonia, which remains fairly evenly split over independence after the illegal attempt to secede in 2017. A recent survey found that 47.7% of Catalans are against independence, and 44.5% in favour.

“I want to bring about a change in Catalan politics after 10 lost years of increased division, of increased economic decline and of lost prestige,” he said, adding he had detected “a certain fatigue” in the region and a desire to open a new chapter in Catalan politics.

“To change all that, we need to bring Catalans back together with each other, with the rest of Spain, and with the rest of Europe. We need to stitch Catalonia back together and reunify it.”

Such hopes, however, remain distant, at least politically. Polls suggest that Sunday’s election will be a tight race between the PSC and the two main pro-independence parties – the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Together for Catalonia – while the pro-independence parties have agreed not to make any deals that would help the Socialists into government.

Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s acting president, who is standing as the ERC’s candidate, dismisses Illa’s approach as “amnesia” and argues that his party will not “turn the page” while several independence leaders remain in prison over their role in the doomed attempt at secession.

Pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona in October
Pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona in October. Polls show 44.5% of Catalonians want independence. Photograph: Paco Freire/Sopa Images/Rex

Illa has also ruled out pacts with any party whose “principal objective in government is Catalan independence … because that would be a failed government on both sides. I’m never going to work from the government for Catalan independence because I think it hurts and divides Catalonia.”

Illa’s critics and opponents have questioned his handling of the pandemic as health minister and his decision to leave the post to run in Catalonia. Spain, which appears to be emerging slowly from the third wave of the virus, has recorded more than 3 million cases and almost 64,000 deaths.

“The people who are criticising me now are the people who were asking me to leave before I announced my candidacy,” said Illa. “As soon as I said I was running, they said I shouldn’t go. I decided to run because I was asked to do so by my party and because this is a political problem of the first order in Catalonia and in Spain.”

He said he had stepped down after the vaccination process had begun in Spain and across Europe, and that Spain had already learned many lessons from the pandemic.

Asked what his biggest regret was as health minister, Illa said: “Looking back, I think not just me, but all my colleagues, regret not acting earlier. But it’s easy to judge with all that we’ve seen and with all the information we have now … Obviously if we’d know then what we know now, we would have done things much earlier.”

The former minister has been criticised for refusing to take a Covid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before a TV debate with his eight fellow candidates earlier this week. Illa said he had been following the health protocols, which was that a PCR test was required only for people who had Covid symptoms or had been in close contact with someone with the virus. He said neither had been the case, adding: “As health minister, I always maintained that PCR tests should be taken when necessary and not on a whim, which is why I didn’t take one.”

On Thursday, Illa denied suggestions he had refused the test because he had jumped the queue to be vaccinated. “I have not been vaccinated and all of Spain knows that,” he said.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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