The editor's corner

Why are they trying to recall Lima Mayor Susana Villarán?

By Nick Rosen

Don’t go searching for a scandal or issue that explains the Lima mayoral recall, Nick Rosen writes. It’s a failure of the political system.

Why are they trying to recall Lima Mayor Susana Villarán?

Mayor Susana Villarán (Norma Córdova/Andina)

In five weeks, Lima’s mayor, Susana Villarán, will probably be recalled. The polls show that if the recall election was held today, 60% of residents would vote to have Villarán removed from office. By all indications, it will be difficult for Villarán to make up the difference in time for the March 17th, vote.


As we near the vote, however, there’s one question that has been asked repeatedly, by our readers and by many other observers. They have asked, “Why are they trying to recall Villarán?”


There’s no satisfying answer to that question. There’s no scandal (in contrast to past mayoral administrations). There’s no revolt against an unpopular policy (indeed, the reform of the public transit system, the centerpiece of Villarán administration, enjoys wide popularity). Villarán’s critics say that her administration has been inefficient, but the figures do not clearly back up that allegation. There’s no issue, per se, to debate.


Last week, Hildebrandt en sus trece published a report from a couple of neighborhoods in Lima Norte and Lima Este, hotbeds of support for the recall. Voters explained why they wanted Villarán out of office. Some cited friends or family members who worked as drivers or cobradores on combis and who feared they would lose their jobs or have to pay hefty traffic tickets because of the transportation reforms. Others had lost the opportunity to work when Villarán restricted where vendors could sell their wares in the center of Lima and shut down the market at La Parada. Some mentioned that Villarán had not built anything in their particular neighborhood. There was no single, overarching explanation, but a series of particular or hyper-local issues.


Some analysts have pointed to a socioeconomic and cultural explanation for Villarán’s poor reception among Lima’s least-wealthy residents. Villarán, even as a left-leaning politician, represents the city’s élite, and she has had trouble connecting with the many Limeños who live in the working-class neighborhoods ringing the city.


I think there is a simpler explanation for why Villarán is unpopular, however: she never was popular. She won her position in 2010 by emerging late from a crowded, divided field of candidates and claimed just 39% of the vote. That is the same percentage, according to the polls, that would vote to keep her in office today. The composition of her base of support has changed, but the numbers have not.


Villarán’s case is not exceptional. These days, the majority of Peruvian politicians enjoy popularity similar to Villarán’s. You will find many mayors and regional presidents polling at 15%, 25% or 30% approval ratings. The approval ratings enjoyed by Humala now (53%, after spending most of the past 12 months in the low-40s) and Luis Castañeda during his term as mayor are exceptions, not the norm. For a number of reasons, including the incredible weakness of political parties here, Peruvian politicians rarely enjoy a solid base of support, and most would be susceptible to a recall campaign like the one targeting Villarán.


So the answer as to why they are trying to recall Villarán is as simple as it is unsatisfying. They are going to recall her because they can. There are people who have a financial or political interest in seeing Villarán gone, and they have provided the financial and organizing muscle needed to run the campaign. They see this as a worthy investment of their time and resources because in Lima, just as in almost everywhere else in Peru, it is easy to find the 50%-plus-one of the voters needed to kick a politician out of office. If this works— and it probably will— expect to see it repeated elsewhere around the country in the years to come.