Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, meet Lima Mayor Susana Villaran
At first glance, it might not seem that the top municipal official in Toronto — once again firmly ensconced in the mayor’s chair — would have much in common with his counterpart in Peru’s largest city.
Susana Villaran is a leftist — albeit a moderate leftist — while Ford occupies an ideological landscape located more, shall we say, to the right.
The mayor of Lima also makes a habit of attending her city’s annual gay-pride parade. Ford, of course, is a perennial no-show at the Toronto version of the same event.
So is there anything that unites these two very different politicians?
As it happens, quite a lot.
“There have been complaints that the mayor’s office has not been as effective as it could have been, but it’s attacking crucial issues. It’s probably the cleanest mayoralty Lima has ever had.”
CONSULTANT AT THE WASHINGTON OFFICE ON LATIN AMERICA
It turns out that Ford and his Peruvian opposite are each midway through an initial four-year term as mayor, and both are — or were — in serious peril of not surviving much beyond that.
Lima Mayor Susana Villaran might lose a recall vote set for March. A recent poll found 65 per cent of voters want her removed from office.
In Ford’s case, the mayor appears to have survived one legal challenge only to stumble into another, this one concerning campaign financing. It seems unlikely, although still possible, that he will be evicted from office as a result.
By contrast, Villaran’s hold on her city’s mayoralty still hangs in the balance.
“No ha hecho nada,” her opponents insist, an unofficial slogan that is now repeated over and over again, on radio, TV and in the streets.
“She hasn’t done anything.”
In apparent retribution for this purported failure, Villaran now faces a recall vote scheduled for March 17.
“From the polls, it seems she might lose,” says Alex Sanchez, a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s like 50-50 at the moment. It doesn’t look good.”
In fact, it looks pretty grim. A public-opinion poll conducted early last month found that 65 per cent of Lima’s voters want the mayor removed from office.
Just 29 per cent said she should stay.
Some observers consider these sentiments to be more than a little perverse.
In the first place, they say, Villaran has not been a bad mayor — not a great one, perhaps, but far from the disaster her foes proclaim.
“There have been complaints that the mayor’s office has not been as effective as it could have been, but it’s attacking crucial issues,” says Coletta Youngers, a Peru expert and consultant at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s probably the cleanest mayoralty Lima has ever had.”
A former school teacher and journalist, Villaran has no experience running a large organization, but she has been willing to take on some formidable adversaries during her time in power.
These include the huge armies of feuding, smoke-belching private minibuses that clog Lima’s boulevards by day and night, in direct competition with a new and far more orderly mass-transit system known as La Metropolitana, a network of articulated buses running along dedicated lanes.
“She’s trying to organize La Metropolitana,” says Sanchez. “We have to have a better system of transportation.”
But the mayor’s most traumatic — and violent — confrontation occurred last October, when she sent in the police to uproot the city’s wholesale food traders from a 50-year-old market called La Parada, a dirty, dilapidated bazaar that has long been riddled with vermin and crime.
Riots ensued — possibly triggered by paid provocateurs — and the operation quickly descended into pitched battles, looting and bloodshed. By the time the disturbances ended, four people were dead and more than 100 injured, including nearly 70 police.
But it worked. The traders were finally relocated at a modern wholesale market called Santa Anita that had been built to replace the old, obsolete site — a feat that none of the mayor’s predecessors had dared to attempt.
“That was Villaran trying to do something right,” says Sanchez. “She’s had these kinds of initiatives.”
So why do people want her to go?
“It’s pretty much ignorance,” says one Lima resident. “People can be pretty easily bought.”
Just ask Marco Tulio Gutierrez, who describes himself as an ordinary bloke but who nonetheless spearheaded a campaign to amass 400,000 signatures, all calling for Villaran’s removal — the minimum required to set the recall process in motion.
According to one published report, that effort depended on the labour of hundreds of canvassers and wound up costing 2 million Peruvian soles, or about $800,000.
Passed in 1994, Peru’s municipal recall law was intended for use in cases of extreme corruption or criminal malfeasance by elected officials. Not even Villaran’s bitterest enemies say she’s guilty of anything of the sort — just the opposite, in fact.
So why all this uproar about a 63-year-old woman who seems to be making a reasonable fist of a difficult job?
“There’s a general consensus amongst objective analysts that there are dark political forces at work here,” says Youngers.
Like many other observers, she looks at Lima’s ongoing political convulsions and detects the invisible hand of one Luis Castaneda, whose nickname is “The Mute” — he doesn’t say much — an old-school politician who ran the city as its mayor from 2003 until Villaran replaced him at the beginning of 2011.
Castaneda might be motivated by sheer spite or, as some suggest, he could be seeking a return to public office, in order to gain immunity from prosecution relating to some extremely generous public-works contracts he authorized while in power.
“Everything indicates that the people behind the recall are close to the former mayor,” says Youngers. “There are serious allegations of corruption under his government.”
That’s politics, Peruvian-style, and it’s proving to be as much a distraction for Susana Villaran as its Canadian equivalent has been for Rob Ford — another burden they have in common.
Maybe they should talk.