A Congressional vote to remove Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski from office on Thursday evening looked set to be a close contest, with the president telling lawmakers that hard-earned democratic gains were at stake if he were ousted. The political uncertainty in Peru, the world’s No.2 copper producer and one of Latin America’s most stable economies, has unsettled investors, especially after Kuczynski signaled on the eve of the vote that his government would seek to trigger new general elections if Congress sacks him. Opposition lawmakers charge Kuczynski is “morally unfit” to lead, following revelations that companies linked to him once received payments from Odebrecht, a company at the center of Latin America’s biggest graft scandal.
Congress debated a motion to oust Kuczynski, a 79-year-old former Wall Street banker who took office 16 months ago, for hours on Thursday, just a week after the payments were disclosed. A vote was expected before midnight local time (0500 GMT) and needs 87 votes, or two-thirds of congressional seats, to succeed. Although the right-wing Popular Force party has an absolute majority in Congress, it is not certain they will be able to gather enough votes to push through the measure.
A government source told Reuters that the opposition is at least three votes short, after the government persuaded around 10 cross-party lawmakers to switch sides this week. A motion last week to start the procedure of removing Kuczynski passed with 93 votes. The hard-left Frente Amplio party, which controls 10 seats, confirmed it would vote with Popular Force to oust Kuczynski. Kuczynski has said there was nothing improper about the financial transactions. The real goal of the Congress, he said, was to usurp his presidency and democratic order, threatening a retreat into Peru’s authoritarian past.
“What’s at stake is not whether I remain in office: what’s at stake is democratic stability,” Kuczynski told lawmakers before they started the debate on Thursday. “Don’t support this baseless ouster … the people will not forgive you.” Popular Force emerged from a populist movement started by former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori. Led by Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko Fujimori, Popular Force says it is only seeking to root out corruption in public office. Ousting Kuczynski “would be constitutional and democratic,” Popular Force lawmaker Ursula Letona told her colleagues in Congress. She likened the possibility to the impeachment in Brazil last year of then-President Dilma Rousseff.
Keiko Fujimori faces competition in the party’s ranks from her younger brother, Kenji, who defended Kuczynski on Thursday. “We’ve opted not to support the removal,” Kenji said in a video posted on Twitter, without specifying who else he spoke for. It was unclear if Kenji could sway others to join him. While he backed Kuczynski previously, he has yet to show he can command his own voting bloc within Popular Force.
Amid speculation of last-minute backroom deals, Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz denied that Kuczynski’s government was seeking votes in exchange for a promise to free Alberto Fujimori from prison, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and graft. “That’s not something that’s negotiated,” Araoz told a press conference. A spokesman in the justice ministry said Alberto Fujimori sent Kuczynski’s presidential pardons committee a request last week to free him by reducing his prison sentence.
Under pressure from Congress earlier this year, Kuczynski said he would evaluate pardoning Fujimori and said he would make a decision by the end of the year. Global consultancy Teneo Intelligence said that even if Kuczynski pulls off a victory, it would likely be followed by more frequent clashes between the executive and legislative branches. “Survival today would leave governability problems intact, and fail to ensure even short-term political stability,” Teneo’s Senior Vice President Nicholas Watson said.