You know it is election season in Peru when the number of public works projects (obras) increases so much that traffic comes to a virtual standstill. That’s how Lima is today ahead of the municipal and regional elections that will be held in October 2010. Much is at stake as the outcomes are a telltale sign for what may happen in next year’s presidential election
The massive display of obras during an election year is not uncommon. In fact, they are strategic. Visible projects—like the construction of an electric train and bus system in Lima—are displays of what the government has done for its people, and are often used as a form of propaganda by candidates running in incumbent seats. Closely following the Latin American tradition of populismo, incumbent candidates appeal to the masses through these obras. Yet, the use of public works projects as propaganda can pose risks too. Publicly displayed accomplishments might also expose the corruption associated with their construction.
Lima has a history of failed public works projects. During President Alan García’s first term (1985—1990) he invested in a national project to construct a Tren Electrico—a train system that would run through the city. However, the project was abandoned and some parts of the construction turned into artwork. At the same time President García was accused of rampant corruption and mismanagement of the project. Then after winning the presidency again in 2006, he promised to complete the project by the end of his term in 2011.
Now the ghost of the Tren Electrico appears to be haunting the city of Lima again. Another visible obra is marred by scandal: the construction of a bus system, the Metropolitano, by the municipal government of Lima. Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio intends to construct a bus corridor that would serve the entire city but the cost of the project has doubled, the distance of the line shortened and the date of its inauguration is likely to be pushed back. Castañeda’s inability to explain these changes has caused his approval rating to drop seven percentage points this past week.
These setbacks have implications for the municipal race this year. At present, there are two potential front runners for the mayor’s seat: Lourdes Flores and Alex Kouri. The controversy over the Metropolitano has given political fodder to both candidates. Nobody wants to be associated with another failed project, and all have criticized Castañeda’s handling of the situation.
While Castañeda has yet to officially support either mayoral candidate, successful completion of this obra could shift the political tide in the other direction. The candidates could then find themselves vying for Castañeda’s support, especially given his status as the front-runner for the presidential election in 2011. Either way, it seems as if Castañeda’s political success may hinge on the success of the Metropolitano. It would, after all, give him another obra to flaunt during his presidential election.
* Sabrina Karim is guest blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org and is currently living in Lima, Peru, as part of a Fulbright Fellowship.