By Anthony Esposito
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's finance minister Jose Antonio Meade stepped down on Monday to seek the 2018 presidential nomination for the ruling party, which hopes his honest reputation will help counter the taint of corruption that has blighted its record in power.
Meade had been widely expected to run for the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose credibility has been seriously undermined by graft scandals, gang violence in the country and persistent accusations of electoral fraud.
"I'm going to register as presidential pre-candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party. I do so after 20 years of serving my country continuously with integrity and honesty," said the 48-year-old, who has held most of the top jobs in government.
President Enrique Pena Nieto said Harvard-educated former World Bank official Jose Antonio Gonzalez Anaya would leave state oil company Pemex to replace Meade in the finance ministry.
Meade is viewed by many PRI grandees as the most suitable candidate to take on the early front-runner in the July 2018 presidential race, leftist former mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Lopez Obrador, twice runner-up for the presidency, has railed relentlessly for years against government corruption, hitting the PRI where it is most vulnerable.
Meade is not a member of the PRI, which changed its statutes in August to make it easier for outsiders to run and has ruled Mexico for 76 of the past 88 years.
The party will formally elect its candidate on Feb. 18, but the identity of the winner may be clear long before that.
Meade first entered cabinet under the previous center-right administration of the National Action Party, or PAN.
Serving as energy, then finance minister in 2011, Meade became foreign minister when Pena Nieto took office in December 2012. He later switched to the social development ministry before returning to finance last year.
Seen by allies as a discreet and diplomatic official, Meade's grasp of finance and economics is matched by few in Mexico, and his academic career includes degrees in law and economics as well as an economics doctorate from Yale.
The soft-spoken Meade remains far behind Lopez Obrador in opinion polls. But Meade's potential cross-party appeal is viewed as one of his principal assets at a time of increasing political fragmentation in Mexico.
Crucially, argue his supporters, he has avoided the damaging scandals that have engulfed the PRI under Pena Nieto, who cannot constitutionally seek a second six-year term.
"I thank (Meade) for his dedication and commitment and I wish him success in the project he has decided to undertake," Pena Nieto said in an address at his Los Pinos residence, where he accepted Meade's resignation earlier in the day.
TV images showed Meade driving toward Los Pinos behind the wheel of a modest compact car, a frequent prop among Mexican politicians seeking to project the common touch.
Gonzalez Anaya, who is related by marriage to influential former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, will be replaced at Pemex by Carlos Trevino, a senior executive at the company.
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito, Dave Graham, Adriana Barrera and David Alire Garcia Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O'Brien)