In the dimming light of la tarde, when seven o’clockish is still considered afternoon on this peninsula, the long-serving mayor of Bilbao, Iñaki Azkuna, passed away this past Thursday after several years of deterioration due to prostate cancer. Yesterday, his family, close friends and colleagues in the political sphere attended his funeral at the Basílica de Begoña. Tomorrow a public service will be held for the mayor at the much larger capacity Catedral de Santiago in the center of Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s Old Town.
Azkuna, originally from the inland town of Durango, began his career in Paris then back in Bilbao as a physician and professor of medicine, hospital director and later served the as Health Counsel of Basque Country’s regional government before his election as Mayor.
Can’t say that I personally know very much about this man. In my year of residency, Mayor Azkuna has been too ill to make many public appearances or more than a few interviews with the press. Had he been well we would have undoubtedly run into the guy on a Saturday evening pintxos round or in commute to class. What I do know about the late mayor is from bits of commoner conversation filling the empty space of his absence. The people of Bilbao, who are known for being damn proud of their city (which hasn’t always been the prettiest thing to look at), were damn proud of their Mayor Iñaki Azkuna.
A majority of Bilbaínos, I must qualify, were happy with the policies of Azkuna. Through the grapevine I’ve heard he could be a pain in the tookus to work for. Plenty of his policies negatively affected local businesses and residents. His refusal to remove portraits of Bilbao’s Franco-era leaders from City Hall rightly angered many critics. I could go on, as the controversies and polemics surrounding (un)popular figures should, but I’d rather streamline the discussion for now, and return at a later date to analyze Azkuna’s role in Bilbao’s for-better-or-for-worse urban renaissance.
Like any politician, Azkuna had his fair share of yes-men and -women as well as plenty of vocal detractors. It’s not difficult to comprehend why we would bask in the reflected glory of Iñaki Azkuna having been voted the World’s Best Mayor in 2013. Nor would anyone deny us a little BIRGing knowing that for years Bilbao has maintained the lowest municipal debt (despite the nearly decade-long chokehold of the economic crisis, no less) of any city in Spain, no accident of Azkuna’s. In the end, Iñaki Azkuna revealed the secrets to effective community leadership in his farewell, that all he achieved was thanks to serious teamwork, walking the city to survey firsthand needs of this city affectionately known as el ‘Botxo’ (from Euskera meaning the hole or pit), and finally, that he did it all with the help and collaboration of the people of Bilbao.
To end, an observation: ‘a woman, a man of the people,’ that title and trait so elusive in contemporary politicians, is earned when one can weather all the critique and hubris of public opinion, and still have the gumption to button up, grab an umbrella and head out for a stroll to see how the neighbors are holding up.