(IPS) – When Susana Villarán is sworn in as mayor of the Peruvian capital on Jan. 1, she will face tough challenges, such as a meager budget for public works, 1.5 million city residents without clean water and a mismanaged nutritional supplement program.
The suspense over the outcome of the Oct. 3 elections in the metropolitan area of Lima finally came to an end Tuesday when conservative candidate Lourdes Flores conceded defeat to Villarán, a moderate leftist.
The electoral authorities have carried out a recount of nearly one million votes in response to challenges brought mainly by Flores’s National Unity alliance.
Villarán ended up winning by an extremely narrow margin of less than one percentage point, after emerging as the big surprise in the Oct. 3 regional and municipal elections, which pulled the country’s democratic left out of the electoral cellar to which it had been consigned for the last 23 years.
The 61-year-old candidate identifies herself as part of the modern, liberal left, with deep roots in social concerns, while the alliance she represents, Social Force (FS), is working to present an image of a centrist political force removed from radical ideologies.
The delay caused by the recount, which has not yet been completed, has hindered the transition from the Lima government of centre-right Mayor Luis Castañeda (2003-2010), who resigned on Oct. 11 to run in the April 2011 presidential elections.
Gustavo Guerra, political coordinator for the FS, complained that the delay in declaring Villarán the winner kept her from accessing information on the Lima city budget, which totalled 56 million dollars this year.
“We know the city’s financial resources are limited and absolutely insufficient,” Guerra told IPS.
Villarán meant to “take part in planning the budget for 2011,” but the delay blocked her from “having a voice” in the process.
The candidate, who was Peru’s minister of social development in 2000-2001, will be the first elected woman mayor of Lima and the second leftist to govern the capital, after socialist Mayor Alfonso Barrantes (1984-1987).
Guerra announced that Castañeda’s two terms as mayor of Lima will be closely scrutinised by the new administration. “On our agenda, we have six cases to investigate, which are of concern to us because they considerably compromise the city’s funds,” he said.
Of these “matters that have not been clarified,” he mentioned, for instance, “the construction of the public transit system known as ‘El Metropolitano’, the garbage collection contract granted to the Relima company, and the payment of an enormous debt to a dummy company.”
Abel Cruz, the president of the organisation Peruanos Sin Agua (Peruvians Without Water), said Villarán’s big challenge will be to get the water and sewage company that serves the capital transferred from the central government to the Lima city government.
“There are one and a half million people in the Peruvian capital who are not connected to the water network,” he told IPS. “The great majority of them are poor and live in districts on the outskirts of the city.”
The Water for All programme launched by the centre-right government of Alan García “has been more effective in political, than social, terms,” Cruz said.
The García administration has invested 5.1 million dollars in the programme, to bring clean water to just 35,000 people. “Villarán should depoliticise the programme and make it a municipal strategy, in order to address the most urgent needs.”
Villarán’s campaign focused on social programmes to meet the serious needs of the sprawling squatter settlements surrounding Lima, which is home to roughly 30 percent of Peru’s 29 million people.
Among her plans is an additional 37-dollar monthly cash grant for food to each beneficiary of the “Glass of Milk” Programme (PVL), a nutritional scheme that targets children under six, pregnant and nursing women, the elderly and the ill, and reaches 4.8 million people around the country.
Flores, Villarán’s rival, was opposed to the plan on the grounds that it was impossible to carry out due to a lack of funds.
But the head of the PVL in Lima, Ivonne Tapia, backs the initiative, although she said that in order to implement it, the new mayor will have to overhaul the programme and put it under scrutiny, in order to root out corruption in the system of purchases and solve the distribution problems it suffers.
Under the law that created the PVL, municipal governments are in charge of administering the programme. The Lima city government is actually only responsible for 19,000 of the 2.84 million beneficiaries in the 43 districts into which the capital is divided.
But the government of the Lima metropolitan area “can spearhead a series of changes that would be very important for the programme,” Tapia said. She cited, for example, improving the quality of the products distributed, meeting the requirement of 207 kilocalories per person, verifying the beneficiaries, and taking action against officials and companies involved in shady dealings.
She also called for an increase in PVL funds, which were cut in 2010 to 30.9 million dollars, 6.2 million dollars less than last year, despite the fact that it is Peru’s largest social programme.
The PVL was an initiative, in fact, of former mayor Barrantes, and was initially organised by Villarán in the 1980s before it was expanded to the rest of the country.
Another challenge lies in the fact that while Flores’s National Unity alliance won the office of mayor in 15 of Lima’s 43 districts, Villarán’s FS only won in the metropolitan area. As a result, as soon as Flores conceded defeat, Villarán invited opposition mayors to engage in cooperation and consensus-building to run the capital.
The National Unity city councillors and district mayors “will have a decisive influence on Villarán’s administration,” analyst Carlos Reyna said.
The veteran social activist will also have to govern alongside district mayors from other opposition parties. For that reason, she has called on the rest of the mayors to work together, and cooperate. “It will not be easy for her to govern Lima,” Reyna said.
But Guerra is upbeat. “I doubt the National Unity mayors will oppose Villarán. They will try to get along with her, to resolve the problems in their districts,” he predicted.
The Lima metropolitan city government and the municipal governments of the rest of the districts in the capital “need each other, to negotiate with the central government. There is no other way to do things,” he said.