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03/20/2013

Peruvian mayor narrowly survives recall vote -- shades of Rob Ford

Villarán
Lima's Mayor Susana Villaran gestures after casting her ballot during the city's mayor recall election in Lima March 17, 2013. (Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters)


Rob Ford and Susana Villarán have almost nothing in common – except for just one thing. They have both managed to hang onto their jobs.

In Ford’s case, it hasn’t been easy. But the Toronto mayor has survived one legal challenge after another, and it now seems that he will serve out the remaining two years of his four-year first term, to the delight of some and the dismay of others.

The same goes for Villarán, who remains the mayor of Lima – Peru’s capital and largest city – despite an all-out campaign by her adversaries to remove her from office.

The former school teacher and journalist eked out a narrow victory this past Sunday by winning 53 per cent of the ballots cast in a recall vote that she had seemed fated to lose.

Her opponents were nothing if not committed. First, they gathered 400,000 signatures on a petition that called for the mayor’s political head. That was enough to trigger the recall vote. Then they campaigned furiously to oust the 63-year-old Villarán from the job she has held for just two years.

With only a week or so left before the vote, it had seemed that the mayor was doomed, at least if you went by the polls, which showed the No side (meaning those opposed to her recall) lagging several percentage points behind the Yes side.

But a critical mass of voters must have engaged in some serious last-minute soul-searching, and the result was a narrow victory for the mayor who has two years remaining in her term.

Just like Rob Ford.

Apart from hanging on to his or her job, the two politicians could not be much more different.

Villarán is (a) a sexagenarian female with a hippy-ish demeanour, (b) a moderate leftist who happily supports gay rights, and (c) a champion of public transit over private transportation.

Meanwhile, Ford is – let’s see here …

Oh: none of the above.

But, when it comes to survivor skills, the two mayors could almost be identical twins.

The rap against Villarán, at least on the surface, was that she had achieved little during the first two years of her mayoralty.

“No ha hecho nada” quickly became the unifying slogan of her opponents. She Hasn’t Done Anything.

But this was an unfair charge, for the new mayor has aggressively confronted deeply entrenched and sometimes corrupt special interests, including wholesale food traders and mini-bus operators. What she hasn’t done is engage in a lot of showy public-works projects designed primarily for the purpose of attaching her name to them.

That was more the style of her predecessor in the mayoralty, Luis Castañeda, who many believe was the autor intelectual – the “mastermind” – behind the effort to remove Villarán from office, although he remained on the sidelines during the recall campaign.

The mayor’s adversaries probably also included many conservative limeños unhappy with her support for the city’s gay community.

Some of those who voted to keep Villarán in her job may have been acting mainly out of indignation that the recall mechanism should have been fired up on this occasion at all. Introduced in 1994, the legal instrument was intended for use in cases of blatant corruption or other serious criminal behaviour by elected officials. It was not meant to be invoked simply because voters were having second thoughts.

Still, one way or another, the Peruvian mayor has scraped by – just as Rob Ford, her Canadian reverse-doppelgänger, has so far managed to do.

“Today, nobody lost,” Villarán said following her slender victory. “Today, Lima won.”

Those sentiments might not match the mood of her opponents, but they were the right words to say.

Oakland Ross is a feature writer for the Toronto Star. During the 1980s, he spent five years as a newspaper correspondent based in Latin America.

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