Peru's Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz attends a news conference in Lima, Peru, November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo(reuters_tickers)
By Mitra Taj
LIMA (Reuters) - Neither of Peru's two vice presidents would open the door to new elections by resigning if President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced from office, Second Vice President Mercedes Araoz told Reuters late on Sunday.
Araoz said she was confident Kuczynski was innocent of wrongdoing regarding recently-disclosed links he once had with Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company at the centre of Latin America's biggest graft scandal.
If Kuczynski is as expected unseated by the opposition-run Congress in a vote on Thursday, First Vice President Martin Vizcarra would immediately replace him.
New national elections would only be called if both Vizcarra - a former governor of a copper-rich mining region and Peru's current ambassador to Canada - and Araoz resigned or left office before the scheduled end of Kuczynski's term in 2021.
But Araoz ruled out that scenario.
"We're going to ensure that this government continues in power. Peru elected the three of us and both of us vice presidents are going to defend our mandate," Araoz said in a brief phone interview.
Araoz' remarks were the first explicit assurance by Kuczynski's centre-right government that it would not abandon the presidency, and will likely soothe investor fears about the prospect of elections that could sweep anti-establishment candidates to power as the graft scandal roils the country.
Odebrecht has sent shockwaves through Latin American politics since admitting a year ago that it had won lucrative public work contracts in Peru and nine countries in the region through a network of bribes and kickback schemes.
The scandal has landed elites in jail from Colombia to the Dominican Republic, but has hit particularly hard in Peru, where Odebrecht once had an outsized presence.
With Kuczynski, a 79-year-old former Wall Street banker, and two former presidents engulfed in the scandal and several opposition leaders under investigation, a majority of Peruvians want Kuczynski and lawmakers in Congress to leave office and prefer new elections to be called, a poll by Ipsos showed on Sunday.
But Araoz said that would risk derailing progress Peru has made since its return to democracy at the turn of the century.
"We want our economy to keep growing, we want to maintain democracy, we want to avoid dictatorial actions," Araoz said in a veiled swipe at the opposition.
'THERE WAS NO CORRUPTION HERE'
Congress is controlled by a right-wing opposition party headed by media-shy Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, who is in prison for graft and human rights violations.
Over the past year, Fujimori's foes have alleged that her party would use its majority in Congress to unseat Kuczynski in retribution for unexpectedly defeating her in the 2016 election - warnings that Kuczynski was now seizing on.
"There's an attack on democratic order," Kuczynski said late on Sunday in a televised interview with a group of local journalists. "We have to defend democracy because it's the only tool that guarantees us a path to prosperity... I implore all to continue our trajectory."
Fujimori's surrogates have denied she has sought to unseat Kuczynski for political reasons and describe a motion passed on Friday to start "presidential vacancy" proceedings as part of her party's fight against corruption.
Kuczynski once denied having any links to Odebrecht.
But last week Odebrecht sent Congress a requested report that detailed $4.8 million in deposits it made over a decade-long period starting in 2004 to companies owned by Kuczynski or a close business associate of his.
The payments include about $600,000 in financial services Kuczynski provided for an Odebrecht project as a private citizen and about $800,000 transferred to a company owned by him during and shortly after holding senior government posts.
Kuczynski apologised to Peruvians for not having explained his links to Odebrecht properly.
He denied taking bribes or anything improper about the business transactions. "I'm absolutely sure. There was no corruption here," Kuczynski said.
(Reporting by Mitra Taj, Additional Reporting By Ursula Scollo and Marco Aquino; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and John Stonestreet)