Peru's Humala urges Congress to ratify cabinet after vote fails

LIMA, March 15 Sat Mar 15, 2014 2:40pm EDT

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LIMA, March 15 (Reuters) - Peruvian President Ollanta Humala on Saturday urged Congress to back his new cabinet after a vote to ratify it failed to pass as some lawmakers complained it reflected meddling by the first lady in the government.

In a sign of his willigness to work with Congress, Humala, a former left-leaning nationalist who turned to the right after being elected in 2011, said all of the ministers in the new cabinet would resign if necessary, a step that would be required if he were to reshuffle again.

Some ministers would likely be reinstated if the stalemate ends with the second cabinet reshuffle so far this year.

The political crisis, which comes as the economy has slowed on weak mineral exports and Humala's popularity slips, followed ministers' presentations in a 16-hour congressional session that ended without the votes needed to formally install Prime Minister Rene Cornejo's cabinet.

Cornejo, Humala's fifth prime minister in less than three years, is widely seen as having been picked by first lady Nadine Heredia in a controversial cabinet shuffle on Feb. 25.

Heredia is Humala's adviser and the co-founder and current leader of his party. Critics say she wields too much power for an unelected official and is using her husband's presidency to carve her own path to the country's top job, which she denies.

Earlier this week Humala called allegations that Heredia holds the real power in his government part of a "disgusting campaign" against her.

Despite two votes late on Friday, most lawmakers abstained from a vote to ratify the new cabinet - leaving Humala's government in limbo.

With his ministers behind him, a tired-looking Humala pushed Congress for clarity in a televised speech.

"The cabinet went to Congress in good faith, and I think that was not reciprocated," Humala said.

"It's important to understand that this attitude brings instability to the country," he said. "It brings instability to the political economy, to investments and to all the good things we're doing."

The president of Congress, Fredy Otarola, said Congress will vote on the new cabinet again on Monday.

Humala's scramble to formalize his cabinet underscores his waning political power in recent weeks after a public spat between his top ministers and his wife.

Humala controls the biggest block of votes in Congress through a coalition with other parties but not enough to overcome the opposition, which demanded the first lady stop allegedly meddling in government affairs.

"This is a message calling on the presidential position to be strengthened," said Congresswoman Martha Chavez of the political party led by jailed former president Alberto Fujimori.

It has been more than two decades since the one-chamber parliament has not given a president's cabinet a vote of confidence as required by the constitution.

ATTACKS ON CORNEJO

A slew of opposition lawmakers on Friday attacked Cornejo - a technocrat who has remained in the cabinet since Humala assumed power in 2011 - saying he is a frontman for Heredia.

Cornejo has repeatedly denied that.

"There is no parallel power," Cornejo said on Twitter. "Decisions are made by President Ollanta Humala, the cabinet chief and his ministers."

Heredia had kept a lower public profile for nearly a year after vowing not to run for president in elections in 2016 when her husband cannot run for a second term.

But she returned to the public spotlight in the last cabinet reshuffle, after she and Finance Minister Luis Miguel Castilla denied the government was considering raising the minimum wage as claimed by former Prime Minister Cesar Villanueva.

Castilla, a former World Bank economist widely respected by investors, remained in power. Villanueva stepped down and later said Heredia was calling all the shots.

(Reporting By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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