What Happened To Progressive Politics In Lima?

How Lima's leftist mayor Villarán challenged neoliberalism during her first term.

August 27, 2014

This article is the first of three installments devoted to analyzing the upcoming municipal elections in Lima. Read the Spanish translation of this article here. You may also read the second installment of the series here.

Jr. Chota - Lima, Perú (Juegasiempre / Creative Commons)

On October 5, 2014 voters in Lima, Peru will cast ballots in the metropolitan mayoral election, likely either granting incumbent Mayor Susana Villarán another term or returning control of City Hall to Luis Castañeda, who served as mayor in 2003-2010.  After a tumultuous four-year term, Villarán’s re-election bid has drawn international attention due to her status as Lima’s first leftist mayor in 20 years and first female mayor ever, yet the upcoming election—in which 13 candidates are competing—may also unfold as a bellwether of regional efforts to challenge neoliberalism at the metropolitan level.  Unlike Pink Tide neighbor Bolivia, where leftist mayors take their anti-neoliberal cues from the national leadership of Evo Morales, in Peru the broad acceptance of neoliberalism by Presidents Alán García (2006-2011) and Ollanta Humala (2011-present) has left Villarán on her own to articulate a progressive metropolitan vision.

Villarán initially articulated a progressive vision that challenged Peru’s neoliberal paradigm, but subsequently failed to adhere to that vision, steadily losing support among the poor, working class, and middle-class professionals, many of whom had supported her in 2010. Three factors help explain this trajectory: First, a relentless and well-financed opposition besieged her administration even before its inauguration.  Second, Villarán’s effort to reduce informality was conceived as pro-poor and anti-neoliberal, but this unconventional framing was not well-communicated, turning those who Villarán sought to support against her.  And third, Villarán’s pragmatist leanings accelerated when under heavy media attack while her coalition-building across the political spectrum eroded her base. 

In 2010, Villarán’s unexpected election provoked enthusiasm from diverse sectors dissatisfied with Castañeda’s leadership. Former City Councilmember Marisa Glave explains that Villarán’s team had expected to garner perhaps 8% of the vote, but when the candidacy of governor of Callao Álex Kouri was invalidated for failing to meet residency requirements, Villarán emerged to capture 38.4% of the vote, beating out establishment favorite Lourdes Flores.  Once in office, Villarán attempted to change the core of city governance with new projects focusing on entrepreneurship, women and children, and education.

Whereas most leftist leaders adopt a permissive approach to informality, Villarán has sought to tame informality. For example, her administration saw regulation as a way to help low-income commuters forced to endure a chaotic, crowded, and dangerous transit network.  Her relocation and formalization of the La Parada wholesale market, however, proved costly.  Mayor Castañeda had begun the process, but had no stomach for finishing the job. Villarán approached the thorny task methodically, but the October 2012 relocation resulted in police clashing with a mix of protestors and thugs, leaving over 100 injured and four dead.  Once in its new Santa Anita location, the market became a rapid success, but the former site plagued Villarán, with police failing to evict the last of the die-hard vendors until May 2014.

Even before grudgingly handing over the keys to City Hall, Castañeda had clandestinely assumed leadership of an aggressive coalition committed to destroying the fledgling Villarán administration.  This disloyal opposition manifested most visibly in the 2012-2013 recall campaign, which failed to remove Villarán from office but aborted the terms of Villarán’s city council allies. Revelation of Castañeda’s secret engineering of the recall campaign caused him momentary embarrassment, but Castañeda quickly put the scandal behind him. By August 2014 polls suggested he held a commanding lead over Villarán—as much as 59% to 11% according to the pro-business El Comercio.

Well before Castañeda launched the recall campaign, the opposition vilified Villarán through a media sector dominated by right-wing economic and social interests. Early on, opponents asserted that the mayor-elect was a “slacker” and not doing anything for the city. The Executive Director of the Metropolitan Institute of Planning, Jorge Arce Mesia, recalls that during their first year in office, Villarán’s young team struggled due to lack of experience in governance. Eduardo Zegarra, Senior Researcher at the Group of Analysis for Development (GRADE), adds that despite initiating numerous projects aimed at systemic change, Villarán had little to show for it at the end of her first year in office.

Opponents successfully portrayed this in sharp contrast with Castañeda’s record. Although widely viewed as corrupt, Castañeda was simultaneously known for visible and quick-to-implement public works such as concrete staircases up and down the densely populated hills of Lima’s poor districts.  In 2012, Castañeda’s allies used these negative characterizations of Villarán to anchor the recall campaign and acquired the requisite 400,000 signatures to force an election. Under siege, Villarán doggedly publicized her record of planning and initiatives as well as her transparent and corruption-free style.

However, according to Anel Townsend, director of the campaign against Villarán’s repeal, the protracted recall battle consumed the mayor’s political and financial resources, stalling her agenda.  Beating the recall earned Villarán a brief spike in popularity, but it did not last, and she had lost precious time during her first term. A survey about limeños’ perception of the quality of life in the city showed that whereas in 2012 Villarán registered a 44.9% disapproval rating, in 2013 disapproval worsened to 50.1%; by contrast, in 2010 only 17.2% of those surveyed disapproved of the outgoing Mayor Castañeda.

Why did Villarán provoke such intense hostility from opponents? As urban planner Pablo Vega asked, “What is the right so afraid of?” Mariana Alegre Escorza, coordinator of citizen observatory “Lima Cómo Vamos,” argues that the concept of the “left” has lost nearly all meaning in contemporary Lima politics, yet our interviews with Lima politicians, City Hall staff, and academic observers suggest that Villarán did articulate a progressive vision, and though it did not last it posed a potential threat to entrenched neoliberal interests.

Two elements of this vision stood out. First, though it never materialized, Villarán and her allies envisioned their efforts as an alternative to neoliberal economic and social policy staking out a position focused on inclusive processes and equitable outcomes.  Second, Villarán’s team adopted a less ideological and more pragmatic approach. In contrast to Lima’s left in the 1980s, Villarán drew on allies from across the political spectrum.

Transportation policy under Villarán illustrated her unconventional challenge to the neoliberal paradigm.  Villarán inherited a city transit system whose privatization had been deepened in the 1990s by President Alberto Fujimori and consecutive mayors of Lima through the expansion of roads and services for private vehicles. Villarán set out to make transit genuinely public—under the purview of the metropolitan government. Her transportation proposals aimed to formalize and modernize public transit by requiring that buses have fixed routes, stops, and schedules, and that transportation companies pay taxes and salaries.

Given the reliance of over 75% of limeños on public transit, Villarán’s team initially objected to the norm of tax dollars subsidizing private vehicle use.  As Marisa Glave said: “No one cares if people travel squished, get in accidents, or even if they die on the public bus because they are poor... people who ride on public transportation are second-class citizens and therefore they suffer, they have a horrible time [in transit].”  Instead, Villarán and Glave envisioned a policy where virtually all transportation funds would support light rail, bus rapid transit, bus, bicycle, and pedestrian transit, with private investors engaged to support road projects primarily benefiting private vehicles.

This embrace of public-private partnerships appeared neoliberal to some, since opposition to neoliberalism typically means expansion of the public budget.  But in the face of a limited metropolitan budget, Villarán saw the use of private funds to support objectives of the city’s elite as a way to free up metropolitan (public) funds for an array of social and infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of activities in public spaces and increasing programming in public parks. 

As she continues to lose support, Villarán’s chances of retaining City Hall appear slim, but her dwindling pool of supporters point to 2010, when she won despite even worse odds.  Though she veered away from her initial vision when confronted by potent opposition, we nonetheless find this to be an important idea to consider when examining what progressive politics can look like in metropolitan Latin America today.  Though her pragmatism pulled her agenda away from her objectives, she still articulated a potential path for metropolitan leaders to prioritize access and inclusion through a model that differs from Lima’s left in the 1980s. 

Whether Villarán will get the chance to lead such an effort looks doubtful.  When journalist Rosa María Palacios asked Glave whom she would vote for on October 5, she responded simply: “[I’ll vote for] whoever can beat Castañeda and I’ll decide that on October 5th. The important thing is that Castañeda does not return to Lima.”


Paul Dosh is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Macalester College. Julia Smith is a Fulbright IIE Fellow and a student at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. The authors are grateful to Ximena Rodríguez Medina for her help with fieldwork and library research, and thank Mariana Alegre Escorza, Eduardo Dargent, and Steven Levitsky for comments on earlier drafts.

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