S. Korean conservatives unify as 1 leaves presidential race

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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 liberal 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 didn’t directly comment on the deal and said later Thursday he would trust the people and keep pushing to find ways to revive the economy and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. His top campaign manager, Woo Sang-ho, separately called the conservatives' deal a political ruse to share power that he said would be judged by voters.

The victor in next week’s vote takes office in May for a single five-year term to succeed current liberal President Moon Jae-in, who by law cannot seek reelection.

Moon became president after winning a special byelection in 2017 following the disgraceful exit of his conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye over a huge corruption scandal. Moon’s party has since scored a series of victories in parliament and mayoral elections, as conservative were in disarray.

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.