In October 2010, for the first time in history, voters in Lima elected a female mayor. Susana Villarán was a seasoned political figure who had long been involved in politics and human right issues—helping to establish Lima’s vaso de leche (glass of milk) program to combat child malnutrition and serving as a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Villarán also served as Peru’s Minister of Women’s Affairs and Human Development and as Police Ombudsman.
She is now in full campaign mode again ahead of a March 17 vote on whether to recall her as Mayor of Lima. The movement to recall her is not due to any type of negligence or misuse of funds; in fact, she has focused on cleaning up Lima. Instead, her efforts to move Lima forward have enraged certain constituencies—and they are now fighting back.
But with less than two weeks before the recall vote, it increasingly looks like Mayor Villarán may keep her job. A poll conducted by Ipsos Perú (February 20–22) reveals that 54.5 percent of limeños still intend to vote to recall her with a “yes” vote, while 45.5 percent will vote against the recall. But that 9 percentage point advantage for the “yes” campaign reveals a tendency where opinion polls increasingly show the “yes’ vote losing steam. Just one week earlier, the “yes” campaign had a 16 percentage point lead. Last November, 65 percent of voters in Lima said that they would vote to recall Villarán.
If she stays in office, the Lima Mayor will work to finish the job she started over two years ago.
Villarán came into office with three top agenda items: security, transportation, and the rights of children. She and her team worked to create new social programs and initiatives, such as the Warmi Wasi center for women fleeing domestic violence, the “Barrio Mio” (My Neighborhood) social services program, and CicloLima, which included a serious and long-term reorganization of Lima’s chaotic and overburdened public transportation system. Villarán also made a special effort to promote transparency in public management and to sanction any sort of corruption in the municipal government.
Under her tenure, the Metropolitan Municipality of Lima launched a highly-regarded web-based transparency portal in 2011 to provide public access to information. The city also launched an investigation of the Relima–Comunicore case, a corruption scandal that involved Villaran´s predecessor, Luis Castañeda Lossio.
From the beginning, Villarán did not have the full support of all sectors of Lima: she was elected mayor with a narrow 38 percent to 37 percent victory over her nearest rival, Lourdes Flores Nano. Villarán´s two-year government also has involved some mistakes, including the collapse of one of the walls of the Via Parque Rímac, a traffic-management development project, and delays in the construction of the Costa Verde coastal boardwalk project. Despite her background as a leftist political leader and her willingness to tackle the long-term problems of Lima, such as transportation and insecurity, Villarán’s crackdown on Lima’s informal economy—by relocating merchants to a new wholesale marketplace—has made her more unpopular among the middle, lower-middle and lower socioeconomic classes.
As a result of Villarán’s low approval rates, Marco Tulio Gutiérrez, the director of the Instituto Peruano de Administración Municipal (Peruvian Institute of Municipal Management), launched a signature-gathering campaign to recall Villarán at the beginning of 2012. Gutiérrez successfully gathered the 400,000 signatures needed to prompt a recall vote, and last October, the Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (National Elections Jury—JNE) scheduled a referendum for March 17, 2013, on whether to recall Villarán.
The campaign to recall Villarán is unsurprisingly backed by Solidaridad Nacional, the party of Villarán’s predecessor, Castañeda Lossio (2003–2010), who has denied any involvement in the Relima-Comunicore scandal. The two-term former mayor of Lima leads the list of mayoral candidates that voters would elect to take over if Villarán loses her job. Meanwhile, referendum leader Gutiérrez has openly expressed his interest in working with Castañeda if he runs for public office in the next election.
The confrontation between the two sides of the campaign has intensified as the referendum date approaches. The “yes” campaign has described Villarán as incapable of governing Lima, while the “no” campaign, led by Luis Favre, a famous Argentinian political advisor who directed the political campaigns of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, argues that Villarán represents the change that Lima needs. Not a day passes without a representative of either side reinforcing the “yes” or the “no” perspective in the news.
Less than a month away from the referendum, Villarán´s campaigners have a few more weeks to keep reversing the polls. Nevertheless, the high economic, political and social costs of the referendum reveal the city’s deep social divisions and conflicting political goals. As long as limeños lack a commonly-conceived idea of what is best for the city and its future, the possible recall of Villarán will do little to create agreement among Lima’s diverse sociopolitical actors.