IN 1994 Peru’s Congress approved a law allowing recall referendums against mayors. Its proponents no doubt thought this would be a way to curb corruption. Yet this instrument is now being used by a murky coalition to try to eject Susana Villarán, the mayor of Lima, seemingly because she has tried to apply the law and crack down on corruption.
Ms Villarán, a moderate, Catholic leftist, was narrowly, and unexpectedly, elected to the job only two years ago. She has not proved to be an outstanding mayor: her party is small and she had no experience of managing a large organisation. But neither has she done an especially bad job: she is honest, and she has slowly proceeded to impose some order on one of Latin America’s most chaotic capitals, home to around 8.5m people.
She began by cancelling fat consultancy contracts which proliferated under her predecessor, Luis Castañeda. She proceeded to reorganise the routes of anarchic private minibuses to complement a modern rapid-transit bus system which she plans to expand at a faster pace than Mr Castañeda managed during eight years in office. Despite several disruptive bus strikes, she seems to be winning that battle.
She has also pushed forward with moving Lima’s wholesale market from La Parada, an open-air warren of streets, to a purpose-built site begun in the 1980s. The move involves regularising an informal market with a criminal fringe. Mr Castañeda shrank from it. Ms Villarán has faced down violent resistance. Four people were killed and dozens injured in late October when hired thugs attacked police at La Parada; televised images showed the mob savagely beating a policeman who fell from his horse.
While this was going on, the electoral authority decided that Ms Villarán’s opponents had fulfilled the requirements for a referendum to recall her, reversing an earlier ruling. Some lawyers thought the authority’s decision suspect. The vote will be held on March 17th. Bizarrely, the referendum might potentially oust the 39 other members of the city council, leaving the 40th in the 2010 ballot, a nonentity, as the interim mayor, pending a fresh election.
At best this looks like a colossal and unnecessary distraction from the task of governing Peru’s capital. But the mayor’s supporters see a more sinister process at work. Mr Castañeda, who has been a fierce critic of Ms Villarán, supports the recall effort. A judge is investigating him over a payment of 36m soles ($13.8m) to a shadowy waste-management company. He claims he is the victim of a witch-hunt by Ms Villarán.
When he was mayor, Mr Castañeda spent public money plastering the city with billboards publicising his works. Ms Villarán has eschewed such self-promotion. Partly as a result, her approval rating has languished at around 25%. But some of her political opponents are now rallying to her, as are many ordinary limeños who fear that ousting her is a recipe for chaos. Contrary to the desire of its proponents, the referendum just might turn into an opportunity to defend the rule of law against unscrupulous demagoguery by keeping Ms Villarán in office.