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Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers his speech to supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) during their national assembly ahead of the 2018 election at Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes, Mexico August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero


MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto likened the front-runner for next year's presidential election to Venezuelan leftist leaders in an interview published on Thursday, suggesting the opposition candidate could unleash economic chaos if he wins office.

Former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has led early opinion polls for the 2018 election. Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (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 was "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 which candidate they wanted as their next president.

Lopez Obrador dismissed Pena Nieto's comments, saying they were nothing more than political theatre meant to scare voters.

"Pena (Nieto) is very wrong, the people aren't stupid," he said at an event in the northern border city of Mexicali.

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 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 to win support among 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 corruption scandals, resurgent gang violence and weak growth have undermined its credibility.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)

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