MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - President Enrique Pena Nieto raised the specter of Venezuela blighting Mexican politics in an interview published on Thursday, likening the early front-runner for next year's presidential election to the country's leftist leaders.
Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has led initial polls for Mexico's 2018 election, and Pena Nieto followed the lead of his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) by making Venezuela comparisons with the former Mexico City mayor.
Playing on fears he could spark economic chaos if elected president, the PRI earlier this year sought to brand Lopez Obrador's MORENA party an ally of Venezuela after the Venezuelan embassy suggested it had MORENA's backing.
In an interview with newspaper Excelsior, Pena Nieto said the rhetoric of Lopez Obrador is "not too far, nor too different from" that of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
"I'm not the one who says it. Many voices have said it with a note of concern," said Pena Nieto, who is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.
"They've said he's very similar, that his method is very similar and they're concerned that down the line that rhetoric triumphs, that down the line Mexico, instead of moving forward as it has for the last 25 years, resembles Venezuela today."
Pena Nieto added that it was up to the Mexican people to decide who they wanted as their next president.
Lopez Obrador was the runner-up in Mexico's past two presidential contests. A victory could mark a leftward shift in Latin America's second-largest economy, where centrist technocrats have held sway for decades, and could further complicate relations with top trade partner the United States.
Maduro's government has been criticized by Washington, the United Nations and major Latin American nations for overriding the opposition-led congress, cracking down on protests, jailing hundreds of foes and failing to allow the entry of foreign humanitarian aid to ease a severe economic crisis.
Critics of Lopez Obrador have long sought to depict him as an economic liability, likening him to Maduro's fiery, late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in previous runs for the presidency.
Lopez Obrador has toned down some of his more populist economic rhetoric to try and win support in Mexico's middle class, and has railed relentlessly against political corruption.
The PRI, long Mexico's dominant political force, recaptured the presidency in 2012. But graft scandals, resurgent gang violence and weak growth have undermined its credibility.
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Dan Grebler)