Illa believes the pandemic, which killed over 62,000 people across Spain, has led some pro-secession Catalans to focus on health and the common good again.
“There are episodes in the life of a nation, people or community where we have to come together despite very different political positions and opinions. The pandemic is one of those moments,” Illa told The Associated Press.
“I sense that in Catalonia after 10 years of wasted the majority want to turn the page,” he said. “(They) want to devote our energies to the problems we face today, to protect our health, revitalize our economy and make sure no one is left behind.”
Given the fragmented political loyalty on both sides of the Catalan independence debate, neither party is expected to win a direct majority of 68 seats in the regional parliament with 135 seats.
Illa’s chances of becoming Catalonia’s first non-separatist leader since 2010 will depend on his socialists doing well and receiving support from other parties. He ruled out the formation of a government with independent parties.
But there is also a good chance that the pro-secession forces will retain power after a race that is too short to start and the outcome of which depends on the deal, which can take weeks.
Illa critics believe Spain’s response to the pandemic was too slow and disorganized, claiming it used the Ministry of Health, which he left last month, as a platform to launch his campaign.
Separatist rivals are targeting Illa’s commitment to keeping Catalonia, the affluent region that includes Barcelona, as part of Spain.
“Illa’s solution is amnesia,” said Pere Aragonès, the incumbent regional president of Catalonia and the leading candidate of the Republican Left of Catalonia’s party for secession.
Aragonès and other separatists are campaigning hard for the secessionists’ failed attempt to demolish in 2017, which left several leaders behind in prison.
“I do not want to turn on the site. We cannot ignore the fact that these are political prisoners and exiles,” said Aragonès.
Illa’s approach contrasts with the voices that dominate much of Catalan politics. Separatist leaders such as former regional president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution for the failed attempt at secession in 2017, have consistently blamed Spain for the alleged diseases of Catalonia.
Quim Torra, who was removed from office last year for violating electoral laws, suggested that an independent Catalonia would have been more agile to the pandemic.
Illa firmly denies this thought.
“That’s not true because we’ve seen different countries have to work together during the pandemic,” Illa said.
Sánchez, along with former head of the Catalan Socialists, Miquel Iceta, chose Illa to run.
“We need a sensible, calm and calm candidate who can heal wounds, restore Catalonia to its original state and improve romantic relationships between Catalans and between Catalonia and Spain,” said Sánchez at a campaign rally.
The global health emergency had different political effects across Europe.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who recently stepped down in a power struggle over the use of the European Union’s pandemic recovery funds by Italy despite high approval ratings for the control of the country through the West’s first coronavirus lockdown.
While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s authority has been shaken by the UK’s COVID-19 death toll, which is the highest in Europe at over 113,000, his administration has been lauded for speeding up vaccines.
In Germany, Health Minister Jens Spahn has done well thanks to the country’s comparatively successful initial efforts to contain infections. Bavarian Governor Markus Soeder has also benefited from tough measures to keep the number of virus cases low and is seen as a possible candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel later this year.
But Illa is one of the first politicians to test his reputation as an efficient, caring manager during an election.
As the former mayor of La Roca del Vallès, a village near Barcelona, Illa had spent most of his career with the Socialist Party of Catalonia in secondary positions before Sánchez appointed him health minister last year. He had no prior healthcare experience and took weeks before the pandemic began its savage outbreak across Europe.
Illa admits that he and other Spanish officials “reacted late because we did not see the dimension of what was to come”. But he said even when faced with allegations of incompetence from rivals, he assumed their goal was “to save lives”.
“That is how I understand politics. It is very different from what we have seen in so-called polarization politics in the past 10 years,” said Illa.
He said he lost friends to COVID-19 and experienced the social pressures that the secession debate was causing in Catalonia. Illa attributed key values to his university degree in philosophy: “self-control, moderation, modesty and wisdom”.
“When you become humble and give up arrogant positions, you can learn,” he said. “You can realize that you don’t know everything about this virus or how to fight it. And then you start learning. I think this pandemic was a lesson in humility.”
Jill Lawless in London, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak