Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Woman Candidate Breathes New Life into Left

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Aug 18 2010 (IPS) - The campaign for the October municipal elections in Peru has brought new hope to the badly weakened left, in the form of Susana Villarán, who has shot up from the “other candidates” category to third in the polls in the race for the mayor’s office in Lima.

Susana Villarán on campaign trail Credit: Courtesy of La República

Susana Villarán on campaign trail Credit: Courtesy of La República

Villarán, a former member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and a former minister of social development during the government of Valentín Paniagua (2000-2001), has the backing of nine percent of respondents in a survey conducted by the Apoyo polling firm, behind Lourdes Flores (32 percent) and Alexander Kouri (24 percent).

After leftwing labour lawyer Alfonso Barrantes won the 1983 elections and served as mayor of Lima from 1984 to 1986, the left has consistently performed poorly in elections in the capital. But opinion poll results now offer a glimmer of hope for the Oct. 3 vote.

“When I launched my candidacy, I didn’t even appear in the polls. I simply didn’t exist,” Villarán told IPS during a tour of Huáscar, a slum in San Juan de Lurigancho, a sprawling shantytown on the parched hills of Lima that has the highest poverty rate in the city: roughly one-quarter of the district’s one million people are poor.

“Eventually they put me in the category of ‘other candidates’,” she added. “That’s why nine percent means so much, in particular because it is third place in a field of 11 candidates.”

For Villarán, Huáscar has a special significance: it is where she built, 32 years ago, the first of the five child care centres established in poor districts of Lima by the Asociación Gabriela Mistral, the non-governmental organisation that she founded and heads.

The experience served her well when Barrantes, the only socialist mayor Lima has ever had, asked her in 1983 to organise the “Glass of Milk” Programme (PVL), which was so successful that it was expanded to the rest of the country.

The programme now has an annual budget of 136 million dollars, 24 million of which are earmarked for Lima, according to the Ministry of the Economy and Finance.

“When we started the programme, we faced serious budget limitations,” Villarán explained while walking around Huáscar. But today, the PLV has other problems, she said.

“The distribution of the ‘glass of milk’ is inefficient; the programme is not reaching the neediest. But there is also a problem of corruption. The canned milk is basically all purchased from a single company, at an excessively high price. If I am elected as mayor, we will reform the PVL,” she said.

Villarán is the candidate of Fuerza Social (Social Force), an alliance that was formed in 2007 by the Social Democracy Party — to which she belonged — and six regional political movements, four from highlands regions (Cajamarca, Cuzco, Junín and Puno) and two from Amazon jungle regions (Loreto and San Martín).

“Since Barrantes, no leftist candidate for mayor of Lima has figured among the favourites,” said Nicolás Lynch, a professor of sociology at the National University of San Marcos who has done research on leftwing organisations in Peru. “The case of Susana Villarán is quite a phenomenon.

“Unlike other candidates who dedicate more time to reaching out to the media and to spending money on campaign publicity, Villarán bases her campaign on a sound political platform, a well-designed municipal working plan and the strength of grassroots organisations,” Lynch told IPS.

Villarán’s rivals accuse her of welcoming extreme leftwing activists into the ranks of Fuerza Social, which she denies. “I’m not a communist, I’m Christian. I belong to the democratic left. I’m not a terrorist either, or a sympathiser.”

She added: “I stood up to the Shining Path, who were opposed to our presence in San Juan de Lurigancho, accusing us of being welfare-oriented because we were feeding the children.”

(The Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and the government forces fought a two-decade – 1980 to 2000 — civil war that left around 70,000 victims.)

The New Left Movement (MNI), made up of the Peruvian Communist Party-Red Fatherland, the Peruvian Communist Party-Unity, and other leftist organisations, also backs Villarán.

In the 2006 presidential elections, won by Alán García of the Peruvian Aprista Party, MNI candidate Alberto Moreno took just 0.2 percent of the vote, while Villarán, who was running for a leftwing alliance, the Concertación Descentralista, won a mere 0.6 percent.

“Villarán is centre-left, but we back her campaign proposals because she represents a real alternative to Lourdes Flores and Alex Kouri, who only promise continuity of the policies of an administration marked by improvisation and mis-government,” the president of the MNI, Nílver López, told IPS.

The accusations of corruption faced by Flores, of the rightwing Christian People’s Party, and Kouri, of Cambio Radical, is one factor playing in Villarán’s favour.

Flores was president of Peruvian Airlines, and served as defence attorney for its owner, businessman César Cataño, who is under investigation for allegedly laundering drug money.

Kouri, meanwhile, is criticised for his ties to Vladimiro Montesinos, former president Alberto Fujimori’s (1990-2000) all-powerful intelligence chief who is in prison for corruption.

The candidate is also facing charges of corruption arising from his time as mayor of neighbouring Callao, the country’s main port.

His candidacy is also hanging by a thread, since Lima’s electoral authorities ruled that he could not run in the elections because of his address. But he has appealed the decision and is trying to prove that he lives in Lima and is thus eligible to stand for mayor. The case should be decided this week.

But even if Kouri is kicked out of the race, Villarán would only modestly benefit, according to Datum, another polling firm, which indicates that in that scenario her ratings would only rise to 14 percent, while Flores would shoot even farther ahead, to 40 percent.

But political analyst Alberto Adrianzén told IPS that “the fact that she has reached third place means a leftwing electorate exists. The problem, however, is that Villarán is the expression of only a fraction of the left in Lima.

“The big problem of the Peruvian left is that it has no permanent political representation, which is why voters voted for Alberto Fujimori in 1990, Alejandro Toledo in 2000 and Ollanta Humala in 2006, and are now starting to support Susana Villarán,” he said.

Despite her meager campaign budget, Villarán expresses confidence that she can beat Flores and Kouri, even though they are spending lavishly. “People don’t want the corruption-tainted traditional politicians anymore,” she told IPS after inaugurating an extremely modest Fuerza Social campaign office in Huáscar.

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