By Julia Love and Sharay Angulo
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Saturday endorsed a change to the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) rules that allows outsiders to run for president, a move that gives the embattled leader greater power to anoint his successor.
Gathering for their national assembly ahead of the 2018 election, members of the PRI, Mexico's ruling party, voted to relax requirements for presidential candidates, jettisoning a rule that nominees must be party members with at least 10 years' standing. The change opens the door to the candidacy of Pena Nieto's finance minister, Jose Antonio Meade, a soft-spoken technocrat who has served in various cabinet posts under both the PRI and the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Pena Nieto made his way to the stage at a leisurely pace, spending 15 minutes greeting and posing for photographs with supporters in the crowd of more than 15,000 in Mexico City's Palacio de los Deportes. Sporting his trademark red track jacket, Pena Nieto echoed PRI leaders in describing the change as a move toward building a modern and more inclusive party.
Updating the party's statutes "opens us up to society and brings us closer to citizens," he said. "And it also strengthens the PRI as the best platform so that members and sympathizers can serve their community."
The change also gives the PRI much-needed latitude to choose a candidate as it approaches a trying election. Persistent gang violence and tepid growth have eroded support for the PRI during Pena Nieto's term, and the party is also reeling from a series of corruption scandals.
On that count, Meade's clean record through years of government service could prove a key asset. While he did not speak at the gathering, he sat in the first row, alongside party luminaries.
If Meade became a presidential candidate, he would likely face outspoken leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The PRI lagged far behind Lopez Obrador's party in a July poll.
Near the end of his remarks, Pena Nieto took a veiled shot at the populist's campaign.
"The advantage of our party over the other options is evident," he said. "While we pursue with bravery and vision a better future for Mexico, there are those who hope to return us to the past."
(Reporting by Julia Love; Editing by Sandra Maler)