February 22, 2017 / 10:31 PM / in 5 months

Mexico presidential frontrunner might halt new energy contracts - adviser

Mexican politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, (C), leader of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party greets supporters as he arrives for a meeting at Plaza Olivera in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 12, 2017.Ringo Chiu

MONTERREY (Reuters) - Mexican presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador might halt new oil and gas privatisation contracts and would review existing ones if he won the 2018 election, a top adviser said, in a sign the leftist could try to freeze Mexico's energy market reform.

Lopez Obrador, frontrunner in polls for the 2018 race, fought the overhaul of Mexico's state-run energy sector by the current government, saying the move to open the industry to private producers was anti-constitutional.

The former Mexico City major has since softened his rhetoric, and said he would put the energy reform to a referendum before taking a decision on whether to roll it back.

Still, his Mexico-first message has tapped into discontent with the government and resentment of U.S. President Donald Trump. A Lopez Obrador victory in 2018 could complicate Mexico's relations with top trade partner the United States and U.S. oil companies that invested in Mexico after the 2013 energy reform.

Should Lopez Obrador win the presidency, he would leave in place energy contracts already signed with private producers so long as they were "good for the nation," but might not allow new ones, his adviser Alfonso Romo told Reuters.

"We won't just be scrapping them for the sake of it," Romo, 66, said on Tuesday in his first major interview with foreign media. "I don't know, though, if there will be any new ones, to be honest with you."

The energy reform has led to a sharp and unpopular rise in Mexican gasoline prices as government-set prices are phased out.

"When the Mexican state gives its word, it must be fulfilled. We have to see that (the contracts) are well made," Romo said. "We will review them."

Forgotten Mexico

Lopez Obrador chose Romo, a two-time Olympic showjumper who runs a major brokerage, as a way of communicating with wealthier Mexicans who have long mistrusted him.

"I believe this combination of a responsible business sector, with this forgotten Mexico, can create a lot of opportunities," Romo said in his dark-wood office in the northern city of Monterrey, surrounded by photos of his family and his horses.

A victory for Lopez Obrador, who was runner-up in the last two elections, would mark a historic leftward shift in Latin America's second-largest economy.

Romo, who once owned one of the world's largest seed companies but lost money and sold it to pay debts, said Lopez Obrador had been unfairly cast in the mold of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's former leader.

Romo said he wanted to explain to the business community that Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is popularly known, was not seeking to target them but rather those who had grown rich with ill-gotten gains.

"He is not at war with individual liberty," said Romo, who compared Lopez Obrador to political icons like South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Uruguay's former President Jose Mujica.

Romo, who cites Winston Churchill and Napoleon as influences, said AMLO was committed to running an austere government with a fully independent central bank.

Lopez Obrador has stood with Pena Nieto in defending the North American Free Trade Agreement - a trade treaty Trump has threatened to rip up - and vowed to broaden education access, raise wages and build new oil refineries.

Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Hay

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