Only a prime minister incapable of honouring the position in his charge would have considered doing without his health minister in the middle of a pandemic, with a third wave underway, so that he could run in an election, one the ruling party regards as regional, and leave his cabinet role vacant. It must be unprecedented in Europe for a head of government to make such a controversial decision of this type, which, facing the quandary of putting party or government first, makes a very public choice for the first option.
This decision by Spanish PM Sánchez, because it is his and no one else's, is also bad for Salvador Illa, who accepts the challenge out of discipline and not with the necessary enthusiasm, because he surely knows that his landing at the front line of Catalan politics is taking place under adverse conditions. With his hasty departure from the ministry, its management, already wide open to debate over these months, is now totally defenceless against criticism, because Sánchez is dispatching the health leader without support to the primary battle front which is, electorally speaking, Catalonia. In addition, putting a positive spin on the management of the pandemic is, given the figures that Spain has reported, a titanic task, in the absence of some other factor that could induce widespread hypnosis of voters.
The third question posed by the departure of Illa will be seen on February 14th - assuming that the Catalan elections are held as planned. I would venture to say that the date must be under threat in view of the data on the evolution of the pandemic and that, if a postponement is confirmed, it will be bad news. But back to the third question: does Illa improve the electoral expectations for the Catalan Socialists (PSC)? Is he a better candidate than the current one, Miquel Iceta? On this point there are opinions for all tastes. On the other hand, what cannot be disputed is his greater bargaining power in any post-election scenario, because he does not have Iceta's baggage as the leader of the 2017 imposition of article 155. Perhaps the crux of the question is contained in this.
Although the choice, almost a year ago, of Illa for the health portfolio in the Sánchez-Iglesias government gave a clear message about a future relief of Iceta, the arrival of the pandemic last March seemed to throw all of those calculations into disarray. In summer, the possibility of his return to Catalonia seemed to gain momentum, but it was soon dismissed again as unjustifiable. The last known conversation between Sánchez and the still minister dates back to November and the plan was not that of a candidacy for the Catalan elections but rather a possible promotion to a Spanish deputy PM role. In the last few hours, the PSC and the Spanish government have been quick to explain the move as something that has matured over recent weeks, driven by Iceta.
I think that all this is part of a huge political and media balloon, floated to hide the reality: the move has been prompted by Sánchez and is very recent. Knowing the prime minister, the polls, which are always his manual when it comes to making momentous decisions, must have been a determining factor. And here, one thing is clear: the PSC has not risen above the third position and the constitutionalist vote is forecast to achieve worse results than in December 2017.