Into the fire

So, former Health minister Salvador Illa is headed for a new challenge. This dour, bespectacled man, star of some of the most boring press conferences ever given, is to run as the Socialist candidate in the upcoming Catalan elections, due to be held on Valentine's Day. In this new role, which marks a departure from the mainly administrative positions he's occupied in the past, the 54 year-old can show more flare and ideological personality than he has as a cabinet member - assuming, of course, that that's his style of doing politics, a subject about which the general public knows very little.

Illa's been second-in-command of Catalonia's Socialists since 2016, and was the most senior politician at the anti-independence demonstration held in Barcelona on 8 October 2017, days after the region's separatist government staged an illegal referendum on secession. He was the Socialist mayor of his Catalan hometown of La Roca del Vallès between 1995 and 1999, and has held several posts within the governments of Catalonia and Barcelona, all of them managerial in nature. And he has a Philosophy degree, which makes him that bit more interesting (but as a fellow Philosophy graduate, I'll admit that that's pure personal bias).

You might be wondering where Illa acquired his epidemiological experience before being appointed Health Minister of an entire country. Or you might not, given that Spain's approach to the pandemic has been panicked, draconian and at times simply absurd. Well, he didn't have any health experience. None whatsoever. But he got by OK, presumably because the sciency stuff was left to "experts" and his role was essentially administrative rather than ideological or technical. He'd be helpful to have around, one imagines, while planning a wedding or reorganising an office.

But what does he really believe? Illa's entering the boiling furnace of Catalan politics, in which the heat has been turned up considerably over recent years. The anti-separatist Catalan Socialists are hoping for a better result this time around, after winning just 17 of 135 seats in the last election three years ago; but it's not clear why they think that Illa's the man who will help them do this. Perhaps it's hoped that a more low-key, dialogue-based approach to dealing with Catalonia's "independistas" - some of whom are also in favour of compromise-based tactics - will bear more fruit than the belligerence of ex-prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who sent the troops in on 2017's turbulent referendum day.

It seems likely that some combination of pro-separatist forces will form Catalonia's next government, as they did after the last one, and there are some real firebrands in the movement's most prominent parties. All the region's Socialists can hope for is that Illa is invigorated rather than burned by the fire that he's just walked into.