MEXICO CITY – Mexico's Treasury Secretary Jose Antonio Meade declared his intention to run as a presidential candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party on Monday, making him the first non-PRI member to attempt a run on the party's ticket.
Meade resigned from his cabinet post earlier in the day, saying that he was running as a PRI candidate in the hopes of achieving "a country where families always have food on the table."
Supporters of the long-ruling party quickly backed Meade's bid in the country's July 1 presidential elections despite his outsider status.
"We want you to be our candidate," said Carlos Aceves of the Mexican Workers Confederation, an old-guard union group that actively promotes the ruling party.
Meade told cheering union officials, "I want you to accompany me in my wish to make Mexico a great power, and for Mexicans that means food, sustenance, housing and better opportunities."
President Enrique Pena Nieto did not mention Meade's candidacy at a ceremony in which Jose Antonio Gonzalez, the current head of the national oil company Pemex, was tapped to replace Meade at the Treasury department. Current Pemex financial chief Carlos Trevino will take over the top spot at Pemex.
But Pena Nieto did say of Meade, "I wish him luck in the project he has chosen to undertake."
If Meade is selected as a PRI candidate by a party congress before the Feb. 18 deadline, it would be the first time the party has ever backed a presidential run by someone who was not a party member.
But the PRI has been battered by a falling peso and U.S. President Donald Trump's jibes at Mexico, which has likely prompted the party's turn to an outsider.
Meade, 48, who has no formal membership with any political party, has crossed lines as a non-partisan technocrat before.
The Yale-educated economist served as foreign relations secretary and head of the social development department under Pena Nieto, and he was energy secretary under former President Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party.
Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray showered praise on Meade last week, saying that "under the leadership of Jose Antonio Meade, Mexico today has stability, a defined course and clarity in economic policy decisions."
Meade did help rein in Mexico's troubling budget deficits, but he has also presided over high inflation that runs at about 6.4 percent per year and weak economic growth, including a drop in GDP of 0.2 percent in the most recent quarter.
As former foreign secretary, Meade would have inside knowledge on dealing with the Trump administration, especially U.S. threats to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is vital to Mexico's economy.
But if Mexico has to cede ground on things like greater U.S. content in autos, the Pena Nieto administration and Meade could suffer.
"We will be hurt regardless of the deal struck, and we will be hurt if no deal is struck," said Federico Estevez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "They'll get blamed for this whatever way it plays."
The PRI is so discredited in the polls that it recently changed its internal rules precisely to allow non-party members to run for public office.
In the past, being a candidate meant climbing through party ranks and proving one had support from its various wings, like farm and labor groups.
Party members will still have to submit proof of such support, but under rules apparently tailor-made for Meade, "sympathizers" won't have to meet those standards.
The PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades from 1929-2000 and regained the presidency in 2012, won't formally register candidates until Dec.3, and won't formally name the presidential nominee until Feb. 18.
But it is entirely possible Meade could run unopposed. It also possible that support for his candidacy among Mexico's political elite could cause dissent and even desertions among PRI members who feel passed over.
"You can be assured that Meade won't be out there saying anything that's too dramatic, just to be a steady hand on the tiller," Estevez said. "There's storm coming, you want a technocrat to steer you to safe harbor as quickly as possible, that's all he's offering
"That's a hard one to sell, you know, because he's the one responsible for leading us into the storm, as far as his opponents see it, and that's the way they'll play it."