Two leading conservatives in South Korea's presidential race unified behind one of them Thursday in a last-minute political deal that could boost their chances of victory in next week's election.
In a hastily arranged joint news conference, Ahn Cheol-soo, who ran a distant third in recent opinion surveys, said he would withdraw to support Yoon Suk Yeol, the more popular conservative contender who remains in a tight race with ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung.
Ahn said he and Yoon agreed to merge their political parties and form a coalition government if Yoon wins the election next Wednesday.
“I have no doubts at all that a complete shift in power would be realized through our announcement on a single candidate today,” Ahn said. “We are one team.”
Yoon said that he’ll surely win the election and launch a successful coalition government with Ahn.
Recent opinion surveys showed Yoon running as a unity candidate leading Lee by a few percentage points or running neck-and-neck.
Lee had no immediate reaction. Liberal President Moon Jae-in cannot seek reelection. The victor in next week's vote takes office in May for a single five-year term.
The disgraceful exit of South Korea's last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, in 2017 set off a series of liberal victories in parliament and mayoral elections.
The election comes as South Korea grapples with challenges such as economic woes, surging COVID-19 outbreaks, an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry and growing North Korean nuclear threats.
Conservatives have accused the Moon government of aggravating an internal divide and undermining national security and the alliance with the United States by tilting toward North Korea and China. During Thursday’s conference, Ahn said he and Yoon’s coalition government would promote national unity, push for reforms and focus on supporting small business owners and others hit the hardest by the pandemic.