Villarán's narrow victory in the Lima recall battle

UPDATE 156. 28 March 2013

Well, she won in the end, but only by a whisker. The final tally of the Lima recall referendum gave the ‘yes’ vote to remove Susana Villarán 48.6 per cent and the ‘no’ vote, to allow her to finish her four-year term, 51.4 per cent.

Throughout the whole campaign, which started at the end of last October, the ‘yes’ campaign had been in the lead. Even a week before the vote – when the last permitted opinion polls were published – the ‘yes’ vote had still been ahead. So the result came as a relief to those who had feared that a ‘yes’ victory would have been payback for Luis Castañeda Lossio, Villarán’s predecessor, accused of corruption during his period in office and widely viewed as the mainspring of the campaign to get rid of Villarán.

Villarán was elected mayor in 2010 in a bruising contest against Lourdes Flores, the leader of the right wing Partido Popular Cristiano (PPC). On that occasion too, she won by a slim margin. She was the first left-winger to win the mayoralty of Lima since Alfonso Barrantes did so back in 1983. Since that time, in national and local elections alike, the citizens of Lima have tended to opt for right-of-centre candidates. The left was – unfairly, according to progressive analysts – blamed for the chaos that prevailed in Peru during the APRA government of the late 1980s.

Villarán had emerged as leader of a centre-left grouping known as Fuerza Social. A long-time campaigner against political violence and corruption, she had previously been the head of the National Coordinator for Human Rights (the Coordinadora). It was in this capacity that, on more than one occasion, Villarán came to Britain and spoke on platforms organised by the Peru Support Group.

The recall referendum campaign effectively divided the political community in Lima. As well as Castañeda and his supporters, those who backed the attempt to get rid of Villarán included APRA and some prominent members of the pro-Fujimori camp. Those who supported the ‘no’ campaign included the PPC, centrists like ex-president Alejandro Toledo, parties of the left, and even notable people on the right like Mario Vargas Llosa.

The ‘yes’ campaign was rooted in feelings of animosity towards the incumbent mayor, especially in the poorer parts of Lima where social problems are acute and where the municipality has been regarded as less efficacious than under Castañeda Lossio in completing obras, or public works schemes. Not only did the ‘yes’ campaign portray Villarán as inept, but also highlighted her gender – she is the first ever woman to become mayor of Lima – and her pituco (upper class) background.

So why the turn-around in opinion, at the expense of the ‘yes’? The length of the campaign certainly helped, enabling the ‘no’ to focus on the shady reputations of a number of those involved. The ‘no’ campaign also convincingly argued that Villarán’s removal would have done nothing to help the municipality tackle the chronic but urgent problems facing Peru’s capital city. It would have led to a series of further elections and policy stasis. They also warned that it would probably have led to the eventual return of a corrupt bunch, keen to profit from the juicy municipal contracts on offer. Also, with the help of Luis Fabre, the publicist who helped Ollanta Humala get elected in 2011, the campaign advertising of the ‘no’ was certainly superior to that of the ‘yes’.

But Villarán’s victory came as a mixed blessing for the left and centre-left. As well as the mayor, the councillors who backed her were also the subject of recall, and the vast majority of them have lost their seats. This means that from here on Villarán will be dependent on the voting strength of the PPC in the municipality – a savage irony given the fact that it was the PPC which had opposed her in 2010. She will have to pay the price for that support. In national politics, the PPC has always been much stronger in Lima than anywhere else in Peru.

But the political aspirations of Castañeda have been dealt a further blow – he was an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2010 – as have those of Alan García who authorised APRA to back the ‘yes’ campaign. The result may also force Humala to think twice before consenting to grant ex-president Alberto Fujimori a pardon on health grounds. He has awaited the result of the recall referendum, an indicator of public opinion in the capital, before giving his decision on this thorny issue. A strong ‘yes’ victory might well have tilted him in the direction of agreeing to Fujimori’s release from jail. His decision on Fujimori’s indulto, which will have important political implications, can be expected in the fairly near future.

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