(New throughout, adds background and comment from opposition lawmaker)
LIMA, June 19 (Reuters) - Peru’s finance minister vowed on Monday to resign immediately if the opposition-controlled Congress did not renew its confidence in him in a vote he has formally requested, a pledge that opened the door to a more conciliatory departure of one of the president’s closest cabinet members.
Opposition lawmakers from across the political spectrum have called for Alfredo Thorne to step down since he appeared, in a leaked audio recording, to ask the comptroller to approve an airport contract in exchange for a bigger budget.
Thorne, a former JPMorgan Chase & Co executive, has denied that he was pressuring the comptroller and said on Sunday that he would not resign despite censure threats from lawmakers.
But on Monday he asked the president of Congress to schedule a vote of confidence, after he answered lawmakers’ questions about the controversy last week.
“If Congress renews its confidence in me we will continue to work together to move the country forward as we have been doing. Otherwise I’ll immediately step aside,” Thorne said in a video released by his office.
President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Wall Street investor, has defended Thorne but said Friday that he had a plan ready in case he leaves.
The rightwing opposition party Popular Force could reject Thorne’s request to hold a vote of confidence and instead force him from office with a more embarrassing censure. But that would risk escalating tensions with Kuczynski, who could demand a vote that would bring him closer to being able to call a new congressional election.
“It’s obvious there’s no confidence in him. I‘m personally going to vote for censuring him if the opportunity presents,” said Ursula Letona, a congresswoman close to Popular Force’s leader, Keiko Fujimori.
Popular Force has a majority in Peru’s single-chamber Congress while Kuczynski’s party holds just 17 of 130 seats.
Peru was one of Latin America’s most robust economies. But growth has been slowing following a graft scandal and heavy floods this year.
Kuczynski is widely expected to name another business-friendly finance minister if Thorne steps down. However, he may choose someone to drop Thorne’s much-criticized plan to cut the value-added tax rate.
Thorne was a top campaign advisor in last year’s presidential election when Kuczynski defied expectations to narrowly beat Fujimori, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori.
Kuczynski canceled the airport contract last month amid criticism it benefited private companies at the expense of the state. (Reporting by Mitra Taj and Teresa Cespedes; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Richard Chang and David Gregorio)