By Frank Jack Daniel and Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s ruling party said on Wednesday its main leftist rival threatened to turn the country into strife-torn Venezuela as the two moved into the final stretch of a tight state election race that could influence next year’s presidential vote.
Two polls showed President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was in a photo-finish with the new party of veteran leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to win Sunday’s election in the State of Mexico.
Mexico’s most populous state has been in PRI hands for nearly nine decades, and losing it to Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) would deal a big blow to the centrist PRI’s hopes of retaining power in July 2018.
A poll in newspaper Reforma showed MORENA’s gubernatorial candidate for the state, Delfina Gomez, had 31.9 percent support, ahead of PRI rival Alfredo del Mazo with 30.7 percent.
A second poll in newspaper El Universal put del Mazo in front with 33.8 percent support, with Gomez at 29.3 percent.
Lopez Obrador, a divisive figure with nationalist leanings, has led a number of early polls for the 2018 presidential vote, and financial markets are following his progress closely.
Once governed by Pena Nieto, the State of Mexico is home to one in eight of the nation’s voters, and the PRI on Wednesday stepped up its campaign to thwart Lopez Obrador.
Speaking at del Mazo’s closing rally in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, PRI Chairman Enrique Ochoa sought to brand MORENA as an ally of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro after the Venezuelan embassy suggested it had the leftist party’s backing.
“…We heard from the media that what Lopez Obrador, MORENA and its candidate want is to turn Mexico into Venezuela,” Ochoa told a crowd of thousands, conjuring visions of food shortages, failing medical care and economic chaos if MORENA won.
“If Lopez Obrador and MORENA like Venezuela so much, they should go and live in Venezuela,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Venezuelan embassy deleted tweets it had posted last week thanking MORENA for support after its ambassador spoke at an academic event staged by the party.
Around the same time, MORENA issued a statement saying it had taken no position on the situation in Venezuela, and it was opposed to intervening in the internal affairs of other nations.
If Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, does win in 2018, it could stoke tensions with the United States after President Donald Trump’s electoral campaign broadsides against Mexico, such as insisting it would pay for a wall on the U.S. border.
FOCUS ON CORRUPTION
MORENA’s anti-corruption message has gained traction over the past few months as the PRI struggles to contain graft scandals and gang violence that have battered its reputation.
The PRI has tried to portray Lopez Obrador as a dangerous populist, but the veteran campaigner has moderated some economic policies in his latest bid for the presidency and no longer vows to overturn an energy reform ushered in by Pena Nieto.
Both newspaper surveys showed widespread antipathy toward the PRI in the State of Mexico. The Reforma poll said 75 percent of voters wanted another party to govern the state, with 66.2 percent of those surveyed by El Universal taking the same view.
Wednesday is the last day of campaigning for the state election. Votes will also be held on Sunday in the states of Coahuila and Nayarit, both likewise governed by the PRI.
The Reforma poll was conducted through 1,200 interviews at home between May 24 and May 29. El Universal’s poll held 1,000 face-to-face interviews between May 26 and May 29. Both polls had margins of error of just over 3 percent.
(Editing by W Simon and Cynthia Osterman)