Catalonia on Friday postponed a parliamentary election scheduled for Feb. 14 until May 30 because of a surge in coronavirus cases that has pushed hospital occupancy in the restive northeastern region of Spain to one of the highest levels in the country.
"The current evolution of COVID-19 shows that to continue with the election is an unacceptable risk," acting regional chief, Pere Aragones, told a news conference on Friday.
The election is considered a litmus test for the Catalan separatist movement, as pro-independence parties hope to garner over 50% of the vote for the first time in what is expected to be a tight race, opinion polls show.
Politics in the wealthy region has been dominated in recent years by a push for independence, which in 2017 triggered one of Spain's biggest political crises in decades when the Catalan parliament issued a short-lived declaration of independence following a referendum declared illegal by courts.
The region's population is fairly evenly split on the issue of independence from Spain and it is unclear whether the pandemic makes a victory for the separatists more or less likely.
Catalonia is one the hardest-hit regions in Spain, with over 400,000 cases and almost 9,000 deaths.
Postponing the vote has repercussions for the central government in that Health Minister Salvador Illa, who is running as the Socialist candidate for the regional leadership, had said he would leave the cabinet once the electoral campaign starts.
A poll by La Vanguardia newspaper placed leftist separatists Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya ahead, while another poll by El Periodico showed Spain's ruling Socialists leading following the designation in December of Illa as candidate.
The election was triggered by Spain's Supreme Court ruling in September to bar then head of government Quim Torra from public office for 18 months after he disobeyed an order from Spain's electoral committee.