Yoon, Ahn shake up presidential race with candidacy merger
SEOUL-- The candidacy merger between Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party could be a game changer in a tight presidential race, though it may be too early for them to celebrate victory.
After a roller-coaster ride of negotiations, Yoon and Ahn pulled off a deal on Thursday to merge campaigns while agreeing to field Yoon as the unified opposition candidate for the March 9 election.
"We have no doubt that there will be a perfect change of the government with today's merger declaration," the two candidates said in a joint statement. "We are one team."
The two candidates even agreed to merge the two parties immediately after the election.
It was a surprising deal as many thought a coalition was off the table following the events of recent weeks.
The two had been under pressure from conservatives to merge their campaigns to boost the opposition's chances against Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and responding to such a call, Ahn publicly proposed merging candidacies on Feb. 13.
But the entrepreneur-turned-politician withdrew his offer only a week later, citing a lack of response from Yoon's camp regarding his idea of choosing the unified candidate through a public opinion survey.
Fielding a single opposition candidate got more elusive when Yoon revealed last Sunday that his camp came close to a merger deal, but Ahn ultimately rejected the deal for unclear reasons.
Ahn then blamed Yoon for the breakdown and reiterated his earlier commitment to finish the race on his own.
But apparently, the two sides did not completely let go of hope for a coalition. Following the final presidential TV debate, the two held a surprise meeting in the wee hours of Thursday and decided to put their histories behind for the greater good of a change of government.
Mathematically, Ahn's endorsement indicates Yoon as having a surefire lead over Lee going into the election.
Ahn has been running third in recent opinion polls with 5-10 percent support, while Lee and Yoon were running neck-and-neck with around 40 percent support each.
With Lee representing liberals and Yoon speaking for conservatives, Ahn is considered more centrist than the two.
However, it is uncertain how many of Ahn's supporters will vote for Yoon.
Some poll results have shown Yoon and Lee running neck-and-neck even if Yoon is selected as the unified opposition candidate.
According to a survey conducted by Embrain Public on Tuesday and Wednesday, before the merger announcement, Yoon earned 45.9 percent support against Lee's 45 percent in a hypothetical two-way race. The gap of 0.9 percent falls within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.
The PPP hopes the merger can create a bandwagon effect and absorb Ahn's supporters who want a change of government. It believes the merger created momentum for Yoon's campaign as Ahn is no longer a variable to its chances.
"Today's merger is very heart-moving, but it's just a start," Yoon's campaign chief Kwon Young-se said. "We should never be complacent even a bit over the merger."
Others claim the merger may work in other way for Yoon as it can actually consolidate support of DP voters who want an continuation of the liberal government.
"The atmosphere seems to favor Yoon, but it could backfire as people felt fatigued over the process of the merger," said Lee Kang-yun, the head of the Korea Society Opinion Institute. "As a result, both sides will see consolidation of their support."
The DP claims the impact of the opposition merger may not be a great as expected as the deal came out very late, with only six days left until the election.
Ballot papers for the March 9 election have already been printed with Ahn's name.
"I do not see a drastic change of support for Lee or Yoon due to the merger," said Woo Sang-ho, the chief of DP campaign committee. "It seems the effect of the merger is not big considering conflicts and greediness of Yoon and Ahn shown in the process of merger."
Lee's camp hopes to attract supporters of Ahn's who are tired of him dropping out of elections.
Ahn has a history of withdrawing his candidacy in multiple elections. He did it in Seoul mayoral election for Park Won-soon in 2011 and again in the presidential election the following year for then candidate Moon Jae-in.
"It's about whether the merger would fuel the need for a government change or boost consolidation of support for Lee," said Bae Chul-ho, a senior researcher at a pollster Realmeter. "It depends on how much Ahn participates in campaigning."
Source: Yonhap News Agency