Peru's president in last-ditch appearance to avert impeachment

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Lima (AFP)

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski on Thursday made a last-ditch effort to stave off impeachment, appearing before lawmakers to deny allegations of corruption linked to disgraced Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.

"I came today at your request to confront and expose the false accusation to the country," the 79-year-old told the full session of Congress.

Analysts, however, predicted that impeachment later Thursday on grounds of "moral incapacity" appeared inevitable.

The Congress is dominated by the opposition, and the number of lawmakers backing the process exceeds the vote threshold needed in the 130-seat single chamber.

The accusation against Kuczynski is that he lied to cover up $5 million in payments received from Odebrecht that both he and the company insist were for legitimate consulting fees.

The money was received between 2004 and 2013, a period in part of which Kuczynski was economy minister and head of cabinet for then-president Alejandro Toledo.

Odebrecht has admitted to paying millions of dollars in bribes to officials in several Latin American countries to secure lucrative and inflated public works contracts.

It has said it paid $20 million in kickbacks to Toledo, whom Peru wants extradited from the United States to face charges.

- Vast scandal -

Another former Peruvian president, Ollanta Humala, is in jail in Peru, also on suspicion of having illicitly received millions from Odebrecht in campaign funds.

The Brazilian company agreed over the past year to pay $2.6 billion in fines to the Brazilian, Swiss and US governments for its corrupt practices.

If Kuczynski is impeached, his would be the biggest political scalp in the Odebrecht scandal.

Last week, Ecuador's vice president, Jorge Glas, was sentenced to six years in prison for taking Odebrecht kickbacks.

In possible preparation for a constitutional handing over of the reins, Peru's first vice president, Martin Vizcarra, on Wednesday flew back from Canada, where he is ambassador.

But the president has come out swinging.

The move against him amounted to a "coup," he said.

While regretting being "careless and sloppy" about his business dealings, the former Wall Street banker stated: "I will defend my moral capacity."

Kuczynski said "the constitution and democracy are under attack" and his right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty was being trampled on.

Late Wednesday, he had lodged a legal challenge to try to slow the process, but no ruling was made on the admissability of the case before Thursday's session.

The center-right president has repeatedly maintained "I did not lie. I am not corrupt."

- 'Luck has run out' -

Political analyst Luis Benavente predicted the head of state would end up being impeached, telling AFP: "President Kuczynski's luck has run out."

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

A successful impeachment motion in Peru's Congress 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 who was imprisoned for corruption and human rights crimes.

Following a request from Kuczynski, the Organization for American States, a cooperative forum for nations across the Americas, has dispatched observers to monitor the impeachment process.

Kuczynski took office in July last year. If impeached and forced to step down, Vice President Vizcarra, 54, would take over for the rest of his term, to July 2021.