Weaker presidential candidates unite against favourite Park Geun-hye
Favourite Park now faces a real fight in the presidential race as her two rivals join forces with the aim of fielding a single contender
South Korea's two left-leaning presidential hopefuls agreed yesterday on a potentially game-changing merger to field a single candidate against conservative front-runner Park Geun-hye.
Moon Jae-in, from the main opposition Democratic United Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul running as an independent, agreed on the merger at closed door-talks in Seoul, officials from their respective campaigns said.
However, there was no immediate decision on which one would drop out of the race in favour of the other, the officials told reporters, adding that a final announcement would be made in the coming weeks.
Both men were under growing pressure before the December 19 ballot to merge and avoid splitting the liberal vote, which would effectively hand the presidency to Park, who has a lock on the sizeable conservative bloc.
"It was agreed that officials from both sides will meet soon to prepare a joint declaration on broad political reforms," Ahn's spokesman said.
"After the declaration is completed the two candidates will reach a decision on who will run as a single candidate."
Polls suggest Park, from the ruling New Frontier Party, would easily win a three-horse race, but is neck and neck in a face-off with either Moon or Ahn.
"This will work against Park Geun-hye in the bigger scheme of things because she needed a three-way race to split the vote," said Sonn Ho-chul, a political science professor at Sogang University in Seoul. "At the same time, these two opposition candidates need to be able to move the people and show that this merger isn't just a ploy."
Moon and Ahn have about three weeks to finalise a deal until the official campaigning period begins on November 27, after which it becomes more difficult for a candidate to drop out.
The South Korean presidential election will be held on December 19.
Moon's camp had been especially vocal on the need for a unified candidacy. Ahn's side has been more cautious, insisting on a commitment from Moon's party to political reform.
Ahn has virtually no political experience but is enormously popular with young liberal voters, who see him as untainted by corruption or by political or commercial abuse of power.
Although courted by politicians across the political spectrum, he has remained without party affiliation despite leanings to the liberal opposition.
Ahn has repeatedly attacked predatory capitalism and called for the overhaul of an economy dominated by a few powerful conglomerates, or chaebol.
Moon's supporters argue that their man would make the better candidate because he has the party base and political experience necessary for the president in dealing with parliament.
Moon, a human rights lawyer and former pro-democracy activist, is best known for serving as a top aide to then-president Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in 2009.
Park's approval rating stood at 42.8 per cent, ahead of Ahn's 26.8 per cent and Moon's 23.6 per cent, according to a weekly poll by Seoul-based Realmeter.
In a two-way race, Ahn leads Park 48.7 per cent to 44.9 per cent, while Moon trails her 47.2 per cent to 45.1 per cent, according to the Realmeter poll.
Park, 60, is the eldest daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee and served as his first lady after her mother was killed in a 1974 assassination attempt by North Korea on her father.
She said yesterday she would seek to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to improve relations should she win.
Moon was jailed in 1975 for leading street protests against the government of Park's father.
Ahn, 50, is the founder of Ahnlab Inc, South Korea's biggest anti-virus software maker. The one-time medical doctor and Wharton MBA holder declared his candidacy in September having never run for office.
Also in September, Ahn was forced to make a public apology as reports surfaced that his wife had evaded taxes by under-pricing a 2001 apartment that she had bought.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg