By Joan Faus
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa will be the Socialist Party's top candidate in Catalonia's upcoming regional election, probably triggering a cabinet reshuffling as the country battles the pandemic and starts a massive vaccination campaign.
Illa, who is the second ranking official in the Catalan Socialist Party, was unexpectedly chosen on Wednesday by the party's executive commission as candidate for the February 14 election.
That is likely to imply leaving the Socialist-led central government in the near future to focus on the campaign in the wealthy northeastern region, Spanish media reported.
He could be substituted at the Health Ministry by Regional Policy Minister Carolina Darias, who in turn could be replaced by Miquel Iceta, the Catalan Socialists' top leader, said newspapers El Pais and La Vanguardia.
Catalan politics have been dominated in recent years by the regional government's independence push, prompting one of Spain's biggest political crises in decades.
The decision to choose Illa - who rejects independence but favours dialogue with separatists - was prompted by his high standing in internal party polls after being at the forefront of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, La Vanguardia reported.
Spain has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, registering more than 50,000 deaths and close to 1.9 million cases.
(Reporting by Joan Faus; Editing by Peter Graff)