Peru's president fights impeachment threat

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Lima (AFP)

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was Wednesday fighting for his political life on the eve of an appearance before his country's Congress, which wants to impeach him for alleged graft and covering up ties to a disgraced Brazilian construction group.

His departure would make him the highest-profile political figure to be punished in the expanding scandal surrounding Odebrecht, a Brazilian engineering and construction firm that admitted to paying millions of dollars in bribes in several Latin American countries to secure public works contracts.

And the odds appear stacked against survival. The number of lawmakers demanding impeachment on grounds of "permanent moral incapacity" exceed the vote threshold needed in the 130-seat Congress to pass the motion.

In apparent preparation of being forced to hand over the reins, Peru's First Vice President Martin Vizcarra flew back to Lima on Wednesday from Canada, where he is ambassador.

"The president ordered me to return today and here I am, by the president's side," Vizcarra said on arrival.

"President Kuczynski's luck has run out," a political analyst, Luis Benavente, told AFP. He predicted the 79-year-old center-right head of state would be impeached on Thursday

Ecuador's vice president, Jorge Glas, was last week sentenced to six years in prison for taking kickbacks. Investigations and court cases are taking place in other countries.

- 'I am not corrupt' -

The charges against Kuczynski revolve around $5 million he received from Odebrecht between 2004 and 2013.

For part of that period, Kuczynski was economy minister and head of cabinet for then-president Alejandro Toledo, whom Odebrecht said it paid $20 million in kickbacks to win a contract managing a highway project.

Both Kuczynski and the Brazilian company insist the $5 million was for legitimate consulting fees.

However fictitious "advisory fees" was one technique the Brazilian company has admitted to using to funnel bribes to officials.

And Peru's president, a 79-year-old former Wall Street banker who took office in July 206, initially denied that he received any money from Odebrecht.

It was only when the Brazilian company revealed them that he acknowledged that he took the payments but denied any wrongdoing.

"I did not lie. I am not corrupt," Kuczynski has repeated.

He has asked the Organization for American States, a cooperative forum for nations across the Americas, to send observers to monitor the moves towards impeachment. The head of the OAS, Luis Almagro, said on Twitter he was looking to dispatch a delegation.

Analysts warn that the political uncertainty hanging over Peru could deal a "strong impact" to its economy, Latin America's seventh-biggest.

- Odebrecht, a regional powerhouse -

Kuczynski is due to make his defense before Congress at 9:00 am (1400 GMT).

The legislature is dominated by opposition deputies, making it seem all but certain that an impeachment vote would be carried. Such a step requires 87 lawmakers to back it -- and 93 have already called for the process to happen.

One opposition party, the Popular Force, had demanded that Kuczynski resign to avoid being impeached.

However suspicions related to Odebrecht are also leveled at the head of the Popular Force, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former president imprisoned for corruption and human rights crimes. She was to have given a statement to prosecutors on Wednesday, but postponed the testimony.

Odebrecht, a Latin American powerhouse, had its own dedicated corporate department to manage the bribes it paid.

It ended up agreeing to pay $2.6 billion in fines to the Brazilian, Swiss and US governments for the corrupt practice.