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One a day Live

Peru's president makes forceful plea against impeachment

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has made a forceful plea to Peruvian politicians, insisting that a rushed impeachment proceeding would threaten the nation’s democracy.

"I am here to look you in the eye," he said, speaking slowly and assertively. "And tell you that I am not corrupt and I have not lied."

The 79-year-old former Wall Street banker is in a fight for his political survival after an opposition-led investigative committee revealed documents showing the Brazilian construction giant at the centre of Latin America’s largest corruption scandal made 782,000 dollars in payments to his consulting firm a decade ago. Some of the payments overlap with years that Mr Kuczynski spent as a government minister.

If lawmakers succeed in removing him, Mr Kuczynski would become the region’s first sitting president ousted over the Odebrecht corruption scandal.

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has made a forceful plea to Peruvian politicians, insisting that a rushed impeachment proceeding would threaten the nation’s democracy.

Analysts worry the impeachment vote could usher in a new period of uncertainty for Peru, which is one of South America’s most politically volatile nations. The vote is scheduled to come just eight days after the Odebrecht documents were first disclosed and is being pushed by the opposition Popular Force party led by Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori and who narrowly lost to Mr Kuczynski in last year’s presidential election.

"That they would impeach the president is not an unthinkable thing," said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has spent years studying Peru. "It’s that they would do it in a week without serious investigation, without a serious process of public debate."

High-ranking politicians across Latin America are being charged and sentenced to jail for taking bribes from Odebrecht. In a 2016 plea deal with the US Justice Department, the construction giant admitted to paying nearly 800 million dollars to politicians, their campaigns and political parties in return for lucrative public works contracts that earned the company some 3.3 billion dollars in profits.

In Ecuador, vice president Jorge Glas has been sentenced to six years in jail for orchestrating an Odebrecht bribery scheme. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is appealing his conviction on charges of corruption and money laundering related to the plot. In Peru, two former presidents stand accused of accepting money from Odebrecht. One is behind bars and the other in the US seeking to avoid extradition.

In a letter to a Peruvian newspaper on Saturday, Odebrecht confirmed Mr Kuczynski’s assertion that the payments in question were all handled by his colleague, Gerardo Sepulveda. Though little has been shared regarding exactly what services Mr Kuczynski’s Westfield Capital provided, Odebrecht officials said the money was taxed, accounted for and not part of the corruption investigation.

During his 30-minute testimony on Thursday, Mr Kuczynski showed the contracts in question on an overhead screen, pointing out that none contained his signature. He reiterated earlier assertions that he had no knowledge of the payments and that he never favoured any company while minister or president.

"What’s in play here is not the impeachment of a president but the democracy that cost Peru so much to recover," he said.

On Tuesday, Mr Kuczynski wrote to the Organisation of American States requesting that the Washington-based group send an observer to monitor impeachment proceedings. The OAS said it was sending two delegates to Lima for Thursday’s vote.

The president’s detractors contend he should have disclosed the payments before taking office and that, at the very least, as a high-ranking government minister when the money was paid he should have done a better job to shield himself from potential conflicts of interest. Polls within Peru suggest a majority of Peruvians want the already deeply unpopular president out of office.

As a senior business leader and statesman with many ties to the private sector, Mr Kuczynski was "sort of Trump-like in not clearly breaking those ties. And he’s paying a price for it," Mr Levitsky said.

In order to oust Mr Kuczynski, opposition politicians would need to secure 87 of 130 votes. The Popular Force party holds 71 seats in congress. Party spokesman Daniel Salaverry said that if Mr Kuczynski appears on Thursday, "It should be to submit his resignation letter".

MPs are expected to debate Mr Kuczynski’s potential removal for several hours before holding a vote later on Thursday.

If Mr Kuczynski should be removed, first vice president Martin Vizcarra would be next in line. The former engineer has relatively little political experience at a national level and it is likely he would face many of the same difficulties Mr Kuczynski has encountered in governing.