Catalan Socialist leader Miquel Iceta has been appointed new Spanish territorial policy minister. Spain’s cabinet was reshuffled on Tuesday due to Salvador Illa’s resignation as health minister in order to run as the Socialists’ presidential candidate in the Catalan election.

Illa will be replaced in his department by Carolina Darias, who up until now was the territorial policy and civil service minister. Now the person heading the ministry in charge of the relationship between the Spanish and Catalan governments will be Iceta.

After a number of years in the Socialists’ youth branch, in 1987 Miquel Iceta became a local councilor in Cornellà de Llobregat. He held several secondary posts in the Spanish government early in his career in the 1990s and was an MP in Spain’s Congress from 1996 to 1999. He has been an MP in the Catalan parliament since 1999 and he is one of Catalonia’s first openly gay politicians and defender of LGBT rights.

His influence within the Catalan branch of the Socialist party grew over the years until the 2010s when, as one of its behind the scenes leaders, he was selected to head the group in 2014. He was the Socialist frontrunner in the 2015 and 2017 elections. In 2017, he aligned himself with the unionist bloc by repeatedly fighting the independence push in court.

Illa leaves during critical moment of pandemic

Meanwhile, Illa seeks to change the fate of the Catalan election by running as president, making the most of his extensive media appearances throughout the pandemic. Since announcing his intention to step down in late December, the Socialists have soared in some polls, including the Spanish government-funded CIS survey which estimates that his party will win.

Yet, his resignation as health minister comes at the peak of the third wave of the pandemic, something that has prompted widespread criticism from all other parties. Among these, Jaume Asens, a member of En Comú Podem, the party supporting the Socialist-led government in Spain, said on Monday: “A lot of people wonder whether Illa has acted more as Spanish health minister or as the Socialist’s election frontrunner this whole time,” referring to the month between the announcement of his intentions and his resignation. “He is resigning at the epidemic’s worst moment, in the middle of the third wave,” said the Catalan health minister Alba Vergés also on Monday.

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