LIMA, Peru — Embattled President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski defended himself Thursday before lawmakers threatening to impeach him, asserting his innocence in a corruption scandal that has swept the region and warning that his ouster would undermine Peru’s democracy.
Testifying in a session of the Peruvian Congress, which is controlled by his opponents, Kuczynski told lawmakers: “I am here to look you in the eye and tell you that I am not corrupt and I have not lied,” news agencies reported. He said his accusers are violating rules of corroboration and due process, “which are the pillars of democracy,” and he warned legislators not to support his “baseless” ouster in their fast-track impeachment process, “because the population does not forgive or forget.’’
Kuczynski’s opponents produced documents last week showing that Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant at the heart of Latin America’s largest corruption scandal, made payments of nearly $800,000 to his investment banking firm, Westfield Capital. Some of the payments occurred during his previous stints as economy minister and prime minister, while Odebrecht was winning major public contracts.
The sprawling Odebrecht scandal, in which the company has admitted paying nearly $800 million in bribes to officials in more than a dozen countries across Latin America to secure public contracts, has rocked the region and led to indictments and even jail terms for numerous powerful people.
It helped drive the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, technically based on the alleged mismanagement of government accounts, and has resulted in prison sentences for two sons of a recent president of Panama, the current vice president of Ecuador and a former deputy transport minister in Colombia, among others.
But outside Brazil, Peru has been the hardest-hit country. One former president, Alejandro Toledo, is currently fighting extradition from the United States over allegations he took $20 million in bribes, and another, Ollanta Humala, is in pretrial detention in Lima for allegedly receiving illegal campaign funding from Odebrecht.
Kuczynski, a center-right economist and former U.S. citizen who worked in the United States at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund before launching his political career, initially denied any link to Odebrecht. He later said he had cut ties to Westfield upon assuming office and that the payments were for consulting work performed by a former business partner.
The opposition-controlled Congress, however, promptly voted 93 to 17 to initiate impeachment proceedings, citing Kuczynski’s “moral incapacity.” After his appearance Thursday morning to defend himself, the 130-member single-chamber legislature will hold a debate followed by a final vote, with a two-thirds majority, or 87 votes, required to sack him. The impeachment vote could come as soon as Thursday.
But critics of the effort to remove Kuczynski see the vague charge and the swift pace of proceedings as violations of due process. They accuse the hard-right Popular Force party, which dominates Congress and is led by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed 1990s strongman Alberto Fujimori, of using the controversy as a pretext for an unconstitutional power grab.
The impeachment drive comes just as anti-corruption prosecutors are making headway in their investigations of Keiko Fujimori’s murky finances, and it coincides with Popular Force’s ongoing attempts to oust the attorney general and several members of Peru’s Constitutional Court on grounds that have been ridiculed by independent legal scholars.
The effort follows months of tension between Popular Force and the Kuczynski administration, with the opposition party using its congressional muscle to impeach several ministers while also blocking ethics investigations of its own members for a long list of alleged irregularities that range from money laundering and extortion to fabricating high school diplomas.
Pedro Cateriano, a former prime minister and professor of constitutional law, describes Popular Force’s maneuverings as an attempted “coup.” He is urging Kuczynski to invoke the democratic charter of the Organization of American States, which allows the multilateral group to suspend member nations when there is a breach of democratic order.
“The situation is extremely dangerous. If Kuczynski is impeached, the cost for the country will be huge,” Cateriano said. “The president appears to have had a conflict of interest. But what Congress should be doing is first starting an investigation, with a presumption of innocence, to get to the bottom of the matter.”
Diego García Sayan, a former justice minister and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, agreed. He said the impeachment push must be viewed in the context of an opposition drive to stack the Constitutional Court, the ultimate arbiter of any conflict between the executive and the legislature.
“This is an attack on Peru’s democratic institutions,” García Sayan added. “History has already shown us what this group [Popular Force] is capable of, its criminal record, so to speak.”
Keiko Fujimori, 42, narrowly lost to Kuczynski, 79, in last year’s presidential election. Since then, she has barely spoken in public while exercising tight control over Popular Force’s congressional bloc from behind the scenes. Thanks to Peru’s electoral list formula, the party won 73 of the 130 legislative seats despite taking only 36 percent of the popular vote.
She has also failed to clearly renounce her father’s 1990-2000 administration, in which he presided over the disappearance of billions of dollars from public coffers, shuttered Congress and the courts, and directed clandestine death squads against suspected subversives.
Yet Keiko Fujimori is now feeling the heat over claims that Odebrecht gave Popular Force millions of dollars in under-the-table donations, and that separately she laundered $15 million. Unlike the money that Kuczynski’s company received, the income was not declared, nor were taxes paid on it.
Prosecutors raided Popular Force’s offices earlier this month and seized documents that they allege show “parallel accounting.” Footage of the raid went viral within Peru. It showed Luz Salgado, a former congressional speaker, telling prosecutor José Domingo Pérez: “You are not messing with just anyone.”
An Oxford- and Princeton-educated former Wall Street investment banker, Kuczynski has seen his approval ratings plummet from the high 70s to the low 20s since his inauguration 17 months ago. Many voters have been frustrated by his failure to confront the opposition’s hardball tactics. The president even criticized the raid on Popular Force’s offices, suggesting that prosecutors had not respected “the rules of the game.”
“The Fujimoristas are impeaching him for political vengeance,” Cateriano said. “Some of us have been warning Kuczynski for months that Keiko Fujimori would attempt this, but, out of naivete, he has failed to take that possibility seriously.”
However, if Kuczynski is sacked, the victory for Popular Force could prove pyrrhic. Polls show that nearly 70 percent of Peruvians believe the party is “abusing” its congressional majority, while Keiko Fujimori’s approval rating has also fallen five points in the last quarter to hit 33 percent.
In a splintered political landscape, that still makes her a favorite to make it to the 2021 presidential runoff — for the third time in a row — but it also means she will again face an uphill struggle to overcome the entrenched anti-Fujimori sentiment that stopped her from winning the presidency in 2011 and 2016.
“It’s improbable that Keiko could now rebuild her brand to appeal beyond the Fujimorista hardcore,” said pollster Giovanna Peñaflor.
William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.