Yoon-Ahn deal could determine presidential race
With just six days until the March 9 election, minor opposition People's Party's Ahn announced his decision to drop out of the race and endorse Yoon in a joint press conference at 8 a.m. at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul.
The two sides reached a deal after holding overnight talks hours after facing off against each other in the third and final televised debate hosted by the National Election Commission (NEC). Their electoral alliance came one day before early voting begins.
Standing next to Yoon, Ahn told reporters, "The two of us humbly promise to the people the success of a unified national government for the future of the Republic of Korea. I, Ahn Cheol-soo, decided to support candidate Yoon Suk-yeol."
"I accept candidate Ahn's intentions," replied Yoon, "We will surely win, and together we will create a successful government of national unity."
They also agreed to merge their two parties after the election. If Yoon is elected, Ahn is expected to take part in the transition and participate in forming a government.
The so-called unified government, according to their joint declaration, is expected to focus on the concepts of "future, reform, practicality, disease control and integration" and "overcome ideological excess and factional logic to form a market-friendly government."
"I have no doubt that a complete change of government will be realized with today's merger declaration," Ahn said. "We will definitely enable a change of government and prepare for an era of great transformation and innovation in Korea, in accordance with the will of the people."
He continued, "The two of us are one team. We will make up for each other's shortcomings and achieve a change in government, and we will definitely create a successful government through a complementary, competent and prepared administration."
The merger opens up various possibilities for a role for Ahn if Yoon wins, including taking a senior administration position such as prime minister.
They agreed to consult each other on the process of forming a transition committee and a joint government to "meet the wishes of history and the people," said Ahn.
He also apologized for delays in reaching a deal.
Yoon and Ahn met at around midnight Wednesday and continued talks until nearly 3 a.m. Thursday, agreeing on a merger "without conditions."
It didn't come easily.
On Feb. 13, Ahn proposed that a public survey decide the sole candidate for the opposition. He withdrew the merger offer on Feb. 20, blaming a lack of response from Yoon and said he'd stay in the race.
Last Sunday, Yoon said in a press conference that Ahn turned down a deal despite the two campaigns reaching tentative agreement. However, behind-the-scenes talks continued between the PPP and Ahn's People's Party, despite Ahn saying the deadline for a deal had passed.
There was a turnaround Wednesday, when PPP Rep. Chang Je-won, a third-term lawmaker and chief negotiator for Yoon's campaign, and People's Party Rep. Lee Tae-kyu, a second-term lawmaker, met around 9 p.m. during the TV debate to arrange a late-night meeting between their candidates. Notably, both Ahn and Yoon wore red ties during the debate, the PPP's campaign color, though People's Party officials claim this was coincidental.
Chang's brother-in-law is a Kaist professor reportedly close with Ahn, who formerly was a professor at the university.
Yoon and Ahn held their two-and-a-half hour meeting at Chang's brother-in-law's house in Nonhyeon-dong in Gangnam, southern Seoul, accompanied by Reps. Chang and Lee.
The talks took place over cans of beers.
Ahn submitted his resignation letter to the NEC Thursday at 12:30 p.m., said the People's Party.
The electoral alliance came a day ahead of the two-day advance voting period over Friday and Saturday and six days before the election.
The unification of the opposition candidates is expected to bolster Yoon's chances against Lee Jae-myung, candidate of the ruling Democratic Party.
Lee and Yoon have been neck-and-neck in recent opinion polls, with Ahn trailing behind at around 10 percent or slightly lower. The NEC banned the release of public opinion poll results starting Thursday until voting ends at 7:30 p.m. on March 9.
Responding to Ahn and Yoon's merger deal, the DP's Lee told reporters after a visit to Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul Thursday, "Politics may appear to be done by politicians, but in fact, it is done by the people. I believe in history and the people."
His party was more vocally critical. Rep. Woo Sang-ho, the DP campaign chief, lambasted the electoral alliance as "collusion aimed at sharing positions" in a press conference.
"The Korean people are wise," he continued. "They have watched the whole process unfold, and we expect them to pass strict judgment."
Woo said the DP campaign committee will operate in 24-hour emergency mode with six days left to the election.
Lee, who was initially scheduled to cast an early vote in Sokcho in Gangwon on Friday, changed the location to Gwanghwamun in central Seoul. The move appears to an attempt to appeal to Seoul voters and encourage advance voting. Yoon will cast his early vote in Busan.
Analysts said Lee's campaign is expected to ramp up attempts to attract Ahn's core supporters, such as young women in their 20s and 30s, who may be turned off by PPP policies that alienate female voters. They may also try to lure back voters in their 40s and 50s who preferred the People's Party over the DP but may not be keen on its alliance with the PPP.
Former Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon, presidential candidate of the minor New Wave Party, dropped out of the race Wednesday to endorse Lee. Kim was getting less than 1 percent support in public opinion polls. Kim stood with Lee in campaign rallies held in Seoul Thursday.
Sim Sang-jeung, presidential candidate of the progressive Justice Party, said at the National Assembly, "The people who have supported Ahn Cheol-soo as a third way candidate will be very disappointed." She said she is the only candidate to stand between the two major political parties.
She added, "It is very unfortunate and regrettable for me, as I have competed and cooperated with candidate Ahn in this presidential election hoping to achieve political change that transcends the two major parties."
Ahn, a medical doctor and software entrepreneur, has a history of dropping out of races and giving his support to other candidates. He bowed out and supported liberal candidate Moon Jae-in 26 days before the presidential election in May 2012, which was won by conservative candidate Park Geung-hye. He came in third in the 2017 presidential race. Ahn dropped out of the Seoul mayoral by-election in April last year to support incumbent Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.
Yoon departed for campaign rallies in South Chungcheong and South Gyeongsang immediately after the press conference.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]