Peru's Congress sacks education minister in blow to president

LIMA (Reuters) - A motion to force Peru's education minister from office sailed through the opposition-controlled Congress on Thursday in the latest blow to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's five-month-old government. Tensions between the president and the right-wing populist party Popular Force, led by Kuczynski's defeated rival Keiko Fujimori, have escalated as opposition lawmakers pushed for the ouster of Education Minister Jaime Saavedra because of alleged corruption in public contracts on his watch. Saavedra's supporters said the opposition targeted him to defend powerful private universities facing tougher standards from education reforms that he ushered in. The drawn-out battle over Saavedra drew thousands of his supporters into the streets and revealed divisions in Kuczynski's centrist party, with some saying last week that Saavedra should step down so the government could focus on other things. Peru's 130-seat single-chamber Congress voted 78-0 to oust Saavedra, with nearly all of Popular Force's 72 lawmakers backing the motion. Most ruling party lawmakers and members of a leftist bloc walked out of the vote in protest. The government hopes the motion to remove Saavedra will mark an end to hostilities with Popular Force after Kuczynski backed off a threat to turn the motion to oust him into a vote of confidence on his prime minister, which could have brought Kuczynski closer to being able to constitutionally dissolve Congress. Presidents in Peru call for new congressional elections if lawmakers remove the prime minister twice. But critics of Popular Force warned the success of the ouster motion would embolden the opposition, allowing Congress to pick off other members of Kuczynski's cabinet to destabilize his government. Conservative Catholic Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani offered to mediate an end to the impasse between Kuczynski and Fujimori late on Thursday, inviting both to his home for talks. Fujimori, a self-described Catholic and a daughter of former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, has declined to meet with Kuczynski since narrowly losing her second presidential bid to him in June. In the heated debate over Saavedra in recent weeks, one lawmaker said Congress could impeach Kuczynski if he sought to dissolve Congress. At least two-thirds of Congress is required for impeachment, some 10 votes more than Popular Force's absolute majority. Kuczynski had stridently defended Saavedra, a former World Bank economist who was the only minister in the previous government he reappointed, and has vowed to keep in place his reforms that raised school standards and teacher salaries. (Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Bill Trott and Leslie Adler)