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Peru's Congress ousts cabinet as political crisis deepens

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru’s opposition-controlled Congress ousted center-right President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s cabinet in a vote of no-confidence early on Friday, pitching the copper-producing Andean country into its worst political crisis in years.

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In a gamble that will likely force him to scrap his plans to travel abroad later in the day, Kuczynski had dared Congress on Wednesday to revoke its confidence in his cabinet if it insisted on forcing out his second education minister.

Under Peru’s constitution, if Congress does not deliver a president a vote of confidence for his cabinets twice, the president can summon new legislative elections.

But the rightwing populist opposition party Popular Force, led by Kuczynski’s defeated electoral rival, Keiko Fujimori, answered Prime Minister Fernando Zavala’s request on Thursday to back his cabinet with a resounding ‘no.’

Peru’s single-chamber Congress, where Popular Force has an absolute majority, voted 77-22 to dismiss Zavala’s cabinet.

Kuczynski now has 72 hours to swear in a new cabinet. While he cannot name Zavala as prime minister again, Kuczynski can reappoint other ministers in his cabinet.

Going forward, Kuczynski might have a freer hand to govern in the remaining four years of his term if the opposition steers clear of a fresh confrontation out of fear of losing its majority.

But several opposition lawmakers said they would welcome taking the battle to the ballot box.

“If they close Congress, we’re not afraid,” said Hector Becerril, a hard-line Popular Force lawmaker. “We’re willing to seek the people’s support again. And it won’t be 13 seats we win, or 73. There’ll be 100 of us!”

The vote came on the eve of Kuczynski’s 8-day trip abroad, which includes plans for dinner with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, a speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday and a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican.

Kuczynski, a 78-year-old former Wall Street banker who has vowed to modernize Peru and revive economic growth, took office a year ago with one of the weakest mandates of any president, having beat Fujimori by a razor-thin margin while his party only secured a small portion of seats in Congress.

In a plenary debate that stretched on for more than seven hours, opposition lawmakers portrayed Kuczynski as an out-of-touch lobbyist who lacks authority and poses a danger to Peru.

Congress has forced Kuczynski’s former education and finance ministers to resign amid allegations of ethical breaches, while a third minister quit to avoid being censured.

Popular Force announced this week that it planned to propose censuring Education Minister Marilu Martens over her handling of a teachers’ 2-month strike, which her supporters alleged was fueled by an alliance between Popular Force and extremists.

“We can’t deliver the head of a minister as a trophy,” Zavala told lawmakers after walking to Congress with the rest of the cabinet in a show of union. “It’s clear to us that the country can’t make progress like this.”

Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Nick Macfie