March 23, 2018 / 3:13 PM / a year ago

New Peruvian leader vows to fight corruption 'at any cost'

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru’s new President Martin Vizcarra urged justice officials on Friday to act swiftly and join him in a fight against corruption “at any cost,” two days after his predecessor was toppled by a sprawling graft scandal.

Peru's Vice President Martin Vizcarra gestures as he arrives in Lima, Peru, March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

In a speech before the opposition-controlled Congress after being sworn in, the 55-year-old Vizcarra said he would form a completely new Cabinet and make the economy more competitive by refocusing the government on sorely-needed infrastructure projects.

Vizcarra, a tall and lanky former civil engineer, took office as a scandal involving Brazilian builder Odebrecht and bitter political feuds continued to roil one of Latin America’s most stable markets and the world’s No. 2 producer of copper.

Former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who Vizcarra replaces, resigned on Wednesday in the face of near-certain impeachment over his ties to Odebrecht, which has acknowledged bribing officials across Latin America.

Kuczynski, a 79-year-old former Wall Street banker who once held U.S. citizenship, was also dogged by vote-buying and influence-peddling allegations he denies.

Now that Kuczynski has lost his presidential immunity, a judge will decide on Saturday whether to bar him from leaving the country while prosecutors probe his ties to Odebrecht.

Vizcarra said Peru’s justice system must act independently and swiftly to get to the bottom of the recent rash of graft allegations that have tainted several political and business leaders.

But he added that politicians must also try harder to put the country first.

“What’s happened must mark an end to politics of hatred and confrontation,” Vizcarra said. “We have the obligation to respond to the needs, demands and aspirations of all Peruvians, and not get tangled in a bitter struggle that does enormous damage to Peru.”

As Peru’s first vice president who doubled as the country’s ambassador to Canada for the past six months, Vizcarra has largely steered clear of Kuczynski’s troubles.

He must now repair relations with Congress while restoring trust in the country’s institutions.

Hours before Vizcarra arrived in Peru from Canada on Friday, thousands of protesters marched through downtown Lima to demand early elections in hopes of purging a political class widely seen as corrupt.

“Out with them all!” protesters chanted before police fired tear gas to disperse crowds.

Vizcarra said little about what his government would look like, but said he would prioritize education, strong institutions and economic growth.

Kuczynski, who was elected president less than two years ago, has blamed his fall on a campaign to malign him by the opposition party led by his campaign rival, twice-defeated presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori.

Fujimori wished Vizcarra luck with his administration. “It’s time for Peruvians to be united, firm and optimistic about the challenges before us,” she said.

Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj; Editing by Richard Chang and Tom Brown

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