South Korean independent candidate Ahn Cheol Soo withdrew from next month’s presidential election and will back main opposition nominee Moon Jae In, presenting a single challenger to the ruling New Frontier Party.
“It’s not good for the nation to have conflicts over how to unify campaigns,” Ahn, 50, said in a live briefing on South Korea’s YTN television network last night. “Moon is the unified candidate. I’d appreciate your support for him.”
The NFP candidate, Park Geun Hye, was the front-runner in a three-way race and has a narrow head-to-head lead over Democratic United Party lawmaker Moon, according to an opinion poll Nov. 22. Moon and Park, who is seeking to become the first female leader of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, will have to contend with rising household debt and have vowed to boost jobs and reduce the income gap.
Ahn’s decision will pose a serious threat to Park in the Dec. 19 vote and boosts the opposition’s chances after Park’s two opponents bickered for weeks over the conditions for joining forces, said Sonn Ho Chul, a professor of political science at Seoul-based Sogang University.
“This is the most dramatic merger one can expect, and it maximizes the power of unified forces against Park,” Sonn said. “The merger talks hadn’t been so smooth and were a little tiring to watch, but Ahn has made a compromise for the opposition party.”
Ahn said yesterday he and Moon “couldn’t narrow our differences” over the method of the merger.
“I will continue my own fight for the transition of the administration without any title,” he said, in a reference to his future role.
Top election campaigners for Moon will give up their posts to enable a new team to be formed, his campaign office said today in an e-mail.
There is a need to “form a new election camp through a people’s alliance” based on cooperation between Moon and Ahn, Park Kwang On, a spokesman for Moon, said in the e-mail without giving any details.
The campaign for the presidency with its single five-year term has been marked by broad agreement on the need to expand social welfare and confront income disparity. Park’s party has been hurt by scandals and outgoing President Lee Myung Bak’s plummeting approval ratings.
Prosecutors have indicted nearly 200 people and ordered at least two jail sentences after uncovering illegal lending and lax oversight among bankers, regulators, politicians and lobbyists.
Moon, 59, is a former human-rights lawyer who was jailed in 1975 for leading street protests against the government of Park’s father, Park Chung Hee, who ruled the country for 18 years. He later served as chief of staff to President Roh Moo Hyun, who was in office from 2003 to 2008.
In an interview last month, Moon said he was certain of a merger with Ahn. A win by the opposition may augur tougher regulation of chaebols, the family-run conglomerates that have propelled the nation’s exports, as well as wider ties with North Korea.
“Ahn made a big decision for regime change,” Moon’s team said in an e-mailed statement. “Together with Ahn and all the people who support him, we will work to succeed in changing the regime in order to pioneer new politics and a new era.”
Ahn, who has a master’s in business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, declared his candidacy in September having never run for office. He founded Ahnlab Inc., South Korea’s biggest antivirus software maker.
The question now is whether Ahn’s supporters will agree to back Moon after months of uncertainty during which Ahn remained noncommittal about a merger, Lee Nae Young, a political science professor at Seoul-based Korea University, said in a phone interview.
“The race has become an even closer call for Park,” Lee said. “It’s hard to predict how many of Ahn’s supporters will side with Moon.”
Park’s support rate stood at 45.5 percent, ahead of Moon’s 27 percent and Ahn’s 20.8 percent, according to the Nov. 22 poll by Seoul-based Realmeter. In a two-way race, Moon trails her 43.6 percent to 49.4 percent. Before Ahn announced he was leaving the race, the poll showed he led Park 46.5 percent to 43.6 percent. Realmeter surveyed 1,500 people and the poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Moon said one of his priorities is shielding small- and medium-sized businesses by “drastically” boosting the authority of the Fair Trade Commission in its oversight of transactions between chaebols and their suppliers. He supports a return to the so-called Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea that Lee Myung Bak abandoned.
Park, 60, served as her father’s first lady after her mother was killed in a 1974 assassination attempt by North Korea on her father. She has vowed to seek to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to improve relations if she wins.
Park had tried and failed to get her party’s nomination for president in 2007. Lee has faced mounting discontent for his failure to deliver on election promises to boost economic growth to an annual 7 percent and per-capita income to $40,000 by 2017.
Instead, the global slowdown cut growth to 3.6 percent last year and South Korea’s jobless rate for those 15-29 years old was 7.3 percent in July, more than double the national average of 3.1 percent.