ODEBRECHT STRIKES AGAIN | The short unhappy presidency of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski

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After the president’s sudden resignation, the country may calm down for a while

PERU’S president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, left office on March 21st much the way he had governed during his 20 months in power. He walked out of the massive doors of the presidential palace and started waving to onlookers before taking a call on his mobile phone and ducking into a car. It was a low-key exit for the former banker, who was elected with one of the slimmest majorities in recent history and had little support in congress or among the 30m Peruvians he governed. Most had little idea how Mr Kuczynski planned to help Peru become a solidly middle-class country with strong institutions, as he had promised. His administration, like his departure, seemed distracted.

What felled him, though, was his connection with Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm at the centre of multiple scandals across Latin America. In December congress obtained evidence that Westfield Capital, a company owned by Mr Kuczynski, had worked with Odebrecht while he was finance minister and prime minister in a government that awarded contracts to the company. He had repeatedly denied that he had had any contact with the firm. Congress, in which Mr Kuczynski’s party has just 15 of the 130 seats, started impeachment proceedings.

Mr Kuczynski fought off that assault in December, apparently by striking a cynical deal. Kenji Fujimori, a congressman from the opposition Popular Force party, abstained along with nine others, which scuppered the impeachment. Days later, Mr Kuczynski pardoned Mr Fujimori’s father, Alberto, a former president who was serving a 25-year jail sentence for human-rights violations. The agreement left Mr Kuczynski friendless. He had fought the election as a foe of fujimorismo, against the former president’s daughter (and Kenji’s sister) Keiko, who leads Popular Force. The pardon alienated his anti-Fujimori base without placating Keiko, who still controls the largest faction in congress (and expelled her brother from it).

Calm comes from Canada

Opposition congressmen resumed their attack this month, citing further evidence of questionable dealings with Odebrecht. Wilbert Rozas, from the left-wing Broad Front coalition, said the president “showed zero understanding of the need to separate politics from his business life”. His downfall became inevitable on March 20th, when a video surfaced that showed Kenji Fujimori apparently promising another congressman public-works projects in his constituency in exchange for voting against impeachment. Mr Kuczynski’s allies in congress then abandoned him.

In a seven-minute resignation speech, he blamed the opposition, saying it had undermined him from the day he took office. He accepted no responsibility himself.

With Mr Kuczynski gone, things may calm down. His successor is the vice-president, Martín Vizcarra, who was also serving as ambassador to Canada. As governor of the small southern region of Moquegua, he improved education (pupils in the region get the highest marks in Peru on standardised tests). He also brokered an agreement to develop a big copper mine between Anglo American, a mining company, and nearby communities, no easy task. He will be the first president in decades who has made his career outside the capital, which will appeal to a lot of voters.

Opposition congressmen forced Mr Vizcarra out of his job as transport minister in May as part of their campaign of sabotage against Mr Kuczynski. They are likely to treat Mr Vizcarra more gently now, pundits predict. Few want to face another general election, which could be triggered if the chaos continues.

Mr Vizcarra must show soon that he is different from his ill-fated predecessor. “He will fail quickly if he keeps the same kind of cabinet, with bland ministers who seem more interested in their business deals than governing,” says Eduardo Dargent, a political scientist at the Catholic University in Lima. And he will have to prove that, unlike Mr Kuczynski, he can get things done. “When you ask people what the Kuczynski government did, they stare back at you. They have no response,” says Mr Dargent. An early chance for Mr Vizcarra to shine will come on April 13th-14th, when Peru is due to host a regional summit. Donald Trump says he will attend.

The Odebrecht scandal will test Peruvians’ faith in politicians and institutions. The company’s former director in Peru testified in February that it financed campaigns for the last four presidents, including Mr Kuczynski. Mr Vizcarra must ensure that investigations proceed unimpeded, however painful the results.