Some weeks ago, it seemed inevitable that Lima Mayor Susana Villarán was going to lose her job in a recall referendum. The results from March 17 show that Villarán will stay on as mayor after winning a slim majority of the vote.
The effort to recall her was led by the director of the Instituto Peruano de Administración Municipal (Peruvian Institute of Municipal Management), Marco Tulio Gutiérrez and backed by the parties of political figures such as former Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio, former President Alan García and prior presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori.
A week before the election, the “yes” vote to recall the mayor outnumbered the “no” vote by almost 10 percentage points. The gap between “yes” and “no” votes had been closing in the last weeks of the campaign, but this had not been enough to change the perception that Villarán would be recalled.
However, the results of the recall referendum were a surprise. On March 19, the Oficina Nacional de Procesos Electorales (National Organization of Electoral Processes—ONPE) reported that voters had elected to keep Villarán in office. The election data revealed a narrow 3 percent difference between those voting “no” and “yes” to the referendum, but it was enough for Villarán to stay in power.
What happened in the last week to swing the referendum results in Villarán’s favor? Here are some of the things that might have helped:
- The multiple mistakes of Marco Tulio Gutiérrez: Gutiérrez has been an unfortunate actor in the referendum process. His own obvious political aspirations, his association with Castañeda Lossio, and his blunders made him an embarrassment to the “yes” campaign. His recent comment about how “ladies always say no, but then they end up saying yes,” offended a city that is still trying to fight violence against women. Gutiérrez later said his comment was a joke, but it was too late to take it back and convince people—women in particular— that the recall campaign was not just an attack against a woman.
- The political alliances of the “yes” campaign: “Yes” campaign supporters included Castañeda Lossio’s political party, plus former President Alan García’s Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance—APRA) and former presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori´s political allies. This did not help the “yes” campaign’s image. There was a general feeling that the recall was more about political and economic interests than making Lima a better city. Public perception worsened in the last week of the campaign when an article about Castañeda’s direct involvement in the campaign created more distrust over the true intentions of the recall.
- The political alliances of the “no” campaign: Although the recall campaign appeared to be a political fight among the big fish of Peruvian politics, the support of some parties—such as the Partido Popular Cristiano (Popular Christian Party—PPC) and the PPC’s Lourdes Flores Nano, who narrowly lost to Villarán in the 2010 municipal elections—was a tremendous help to Villarán. Flores Nano´s support was crucial in reaffirming the trust of the upper and middle-class sectors of Lima.
- The absence of the “yes” campaigners in the debate: Peruvians do not have a culture of watching political debates. Nonetheless, when supporters of the recall campaign failed to make an appearance in a scheduled debate on the referendum on March 17, they violated the pacto ético electoral (ethical electoral pact) signed by both sides at the beginning of the campaign. The absence of the “yes” campaign in the debate made viewers feel that the campaign was not solid enough to defend its own position.
Although the people of Lima have given a second chance to Villarán, her political revival will not be easy. The referendum has left Lima very divided, and many “no” votes opted to keep the mayor in office not out of support for Villarán but in protest to the “yes” campaign or to avoiding another round of elections in the next eight months.
In her victory speech, Villarán was eager to affirm that no one had lost after the referendum was over and promised that a new government had started this week. No one knows what challenges the next year will bring, but it will not be an easy year for Villarán.