Mexico's presidential front-runner vows stable economy; aide urges NAFTA delay




Mexico
Mexico's Obrador takes part in an event at the Wilson Center in Washington  

By Frank Jack Daniel

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's leftist presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador vowed on Monday to boost infrastructure spending but guard economic stability, while his team reiterated that ongoing NAFTA talks should be put off until after next year's election.

Lopez Obrador, the front-runner in most polls ahead of the July vote, unveiled a platform that envisioned an austere government to root out corruption and redirect spending to public works and social programs without new taxes or raising the debt-to-GDP ratio.

He rebutted claims he would pursue Venezuela-style socialist policies if elected.

"Let's be very clear, we are not inspired by any foreign governments, neither Maduro nor Trump," said Lopez Obrador, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The veteran leftist who is known popularly by his initials AMLO, is set to make his third bid for the presidency, this time seeking closer ties with business and moderating some policies to fend off rivals who claim he will wreck Mexico's economy.

Lopez Obrador has mainly avoided picking public fights with Trump, who is widely loathed south of the border for his anti-Mexican rhetoric. On Monday he said he would seek friendly relations with the U.S. government but would demand respect.

His team repeated his position that talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should be scrapped until after Mexico's election because the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto would not defend Mexico's interests.

"A government like this ... lacks the necessary legitimacy to represent the interests of the country in this negotiation," said Hector Vasconcelos, a former diplomat who helped draw up the government plan and spoke at the event.

U.S., Mexican and Canadian negotiators are currently engaged in a fifth round of talks in Mexico City following Trump's demand the deal be rewritten to benefit the United States.

The talks are due to be wrapped up in early 2018.

Lopez Obrador narrowly lost in 2006 and by a larger margin in 2012, in both cases refusing to accept the results which he dismissed as marred by fraud. This time he will run as head of the MORENA party he founded in 2014.

He previously ran a popular, moderate government as mayor of Mexico City, but political rivals depict him as a dangerous firebrand and liken his policies and style to the socialist project in crisis-hit Venezuela.

"BUSINESSES NECESSARY"

At a packed 10,000 seat arena, MORENA party delegates voted in favor of a "development plan" that Lopez Obrador said he would implement if elected and after further discussion with supporters.

The plan touted a series of proposals including universal access to public or private universities for all qualified students, better pensions and public health services.

Vasconcelos said a Lopez Obrador government would gradually pull back the army and marines from the streets where they have been engaged in a decade-long war against cartels that has left more than 100,000 dead.

However, he said the military would not be abruptly removed from towns where its presence was the main guarantee of security.

The plan vowed less spending on running the government, respect for private-property rights and the central bank's autonomy.

"We are not opposed to businesses, they are necessary. We are against corrupt politicians and influence traffickers," Lopez Obrador said.

As the central plank of the platform, Lopez Obrador promised to redirect federal government spending equivalent to 4.1 percent of gross domestic product to infrastructure and priority social programs, with a goal of increasing economic growth.

According to the plan, a $13 billion airport being constructed by the current government of President Enrique Pena Nieto is not economically viable. Lopez Obrador's government would come up with an alternative to improve air transportation, it said.

Lopez Obrador also vowed to slash the large pensions former presidents receive, while halving the presidential salary and reducing that of other top officials.

"This is not revenge, it is justice," he said.

Lopez Obrador said he will announce his 16-member cabinet next month, which he said will feature equal numbers of men and women.

Next year's presidential election is expected to be contested by multiple candidates including independents for the first time, which is likely to fragment the vote and could help a candidate win with less than a third support, a change that could favor either Lopez Obrador or the ruling party.

Pena Nieto is barred by law from seeking a second term.

(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Tom Brown)

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