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LIMA, Dec 15 (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 5-month-old government.
Tensions between the executive 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 this week and revealed divisions in Kuczynski's centrist party. Some of his lawmakers said last week that Saavedra should resign so the government could focus on other things.
Peru's single-chamber Congress voted 78-0 to oust Saavedra, with nearly all of Popular Force's 72 lawmakers backing the motion. Most of the 18 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 him closer to being able to constitutionally dissolve Congress.
Presidents in Peru call for new congressional elections if lawmakers remove his 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.
In the heated debate over Saavedra in recent weeks, one opposition 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 he reappointed from the previous government, and has vowed to keep in place his education reforms that raised school standards and teacher salaries.
Saavedra had a 40 percent approval rating but 52 percent of Peruvians supported the motion to remove him, according to a poll by Ipsos published on Sunday.
Kuczynski is expected to appoint a new education minister in coming days in the second reshuffling of his Cabinet since his government started July 28. In November, Kuczynski's defense minister resigned for promoting a subordinate he was dating. (Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Bill Trott)