February 28, 2018 / 5:32 PM / 8 months ago

Mexico's leftist frontrunner to address premier banker gathering

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Last year, Mexican bankers had a leftist presidential hopeful on their minds but did not invite him to their gathering in the beach resort of Acapulco where they fretted about populism. Now, four months before the election, he is leading in polls and they have asked him to speak. 

FILE PHOTO - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leaves after being sworn-in as presidential candidate of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) during the party's convention at a hotel in Mexico City, Mexico February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

    Former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, candidate for the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), will address the bankers on March 9, the Mexican Banking Association said this week, as have his two main political rivals.

Lopez Obrador’s campaign confirmed he would attend.

“They will be able to hear his proposal in his own words and clear up doubts the country’s banking sector has,” said spokesman Cesar Yanez.

    A leftist opposition party has never won the presidency in Mexico, and the country’s financiers want to gauge what could be in store if Lopez Obrador wins.

The veteran campaigner, who made failed bids for the presidency in 2006 and 2012, did attend the event six years ago.

His simple anti-corruption message, including chastising banks for their role in money laundering, has resonated with a populace sick of government graft and crime rampant under traditional parties. Orthodox policies have kept the economy stable but have not solved low wages and inequality.

Last year, with U.S President Donald Trump recently in office and Lopez Obrador touring Mexico, bankers did not invite him to their conference. The theme was “liberalism versus populism,” and attendees from President Enrique Pena Nieto to top bankers warned of populism’s “easy escapes” and “magical solutions.”

Lopez Obrador, 64, now has a strong lead in polls ahead of the July 1 vote, with right-left coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya gaining ground and Jose Antonio Meade, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) pick, in third place.

Ernesto Torres Cantu, chief executive of Citibanamex, told reporters last week that the banking sector needed to hear more about the different economic models the candidates envisaged.

“We insist that the best for Mexico and its institutions would be a free-market economic model,” Torres said.

    Lopez Obrador’s economic views seem to have evolved.

He has softened his initial opposition to opening the energy sector to private investment, Pena Nieto’s landmark reform.

A top aide told Reuters last week that Morena welcomed further private investment in the energy sector, even while the party plans to focus on building refining capacity.

    As mayor, he ran a largely business-friendly administration in Mexico City from 2000-2005. He has sought to moderate his image with the private sector, placing a prominent businessman on his campaign team.

“We will work with whoever wins the election in the end - this is not about the coming two, three, four or five years, it is about long-term,” Hector Grisi Checa, chief executive officer of Spanish bank Santander in Mexico, told reporters this month.

    Still, the candidate’s presence could make for some forced smiles in Acapulco. Lopez Obrador has vowed to clamp down on financial crimes such as money laundering and tax evasion, and he has not been shy about blaming banks.

    “Banks and financial institutions aren’t victims, but rather those principally responsible for, and benefiting from, the total lack of control in money laundering,” a policy plan produced by his campaign said.

Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by David Gregorio

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