SEOUL, Nov. 7 (Yonhap) -- The outcome of talks by liberal presidential hopefuls to pick a single candidate to run against ruling Saenuri Party contender Park Geun-hye is expected to rock this year's election process, and likely decide who will lead the country for the next five years, political watchers said Wednesday.
The agreement by main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) presidential hopeful Moon Jae-in and independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo to settle on one candidate in the next few weeks is bound to attract public attention, local observers said.
The two pledged late Tuesday to unify their bids before all prospective presidential candidates must register with the National Election Commission on Nov. 25-26.
Moon Jae-in (L), Ahn Cheol-soo (Yonhap file photo)
Observers said with just 42 days to go before the election date, "constructive" progress in negotiations should easily overshadow all other political developments, and create positive publicity for the liberal camp.
Future talks are bound to draw attention because the DUP and independent candidate are running neck-and-neck in many polls, making it difficult to guess who will win to represent liberals in the Dec. 19 poll.
"In effect, the single candidacy will turn a three-way-race into a one-on-one competition that pits Park against Moon or Ahn, with liberals expected to enjoy the benefits of upward momentum," most experts said.
If all three complete the race, polls have shown Park would win comfortably, but if she has to run against a unified liberal candidate, the election results are too close to predict.
"By trying to decide on a single candidate, liberals have taken the spotlight, while Park will be hard-pressed to come up with something of compatible magnitude to attract the interest of voters," said Kim Hyung-jin, a political science professor at Myongji University said.
He said that once a single liberal candidate is selected, there is a good chance he will be able to win support from people in their 40s and fuel cohesion among voters in Jeolla region, which has been a bastion of support for liberal and progressive candidates. Because Moon and Ahn are natives of Busan and South Gyeongsang Province, respectively, they are expected to win more votes than any previous liberal candidates from the two regions that have consistently supported conservatives in the past.
Others, such as Park Sung-min, chief executive of Seoul-based Min Consulting, said there is a good chance that political reforms and the single candidacy will be the only issues that can really spark public interest in this year's election.
He said now the uncertainty of Moon and Ahn joining forces has been lifted, the results of the negotiations will benefit the liberals.
Observers, however, cautioned that while the two candidates said they will formalize a single candidacy with a joint declaration heralding the start of new politics that can win applause, the success or failure will depend largely on whether the step can emotionally stir voters.
"Who is eventually selected is important, yet the process may be just as critical," said Hahm Sung-deuk, a professor of public administration at Korea University.
Local scholars are split as to who would stand a better chance of winning the country's top elected office.
Hahm said if Ahn wins the liberal ticket, he may not have enough time to control the extensive DUP party support base, with only a short period of time left before the vote.
"Such would not be the case for Moon because Ahn has no party or organized support," Hahm said.
He, moreover, pointed out that Ahn will be vulnerable to attacks by Saenuri that will focus on the entrepreneur-turned-politician's utter lack of experience in public office. Such criticism cannot be easily leveled at Moon, who is a lawmaker and was chief of staff to late President Roh Moo-hyun.
This view was shared by the Min Consulting chief who said Moon's nomination may result in fewer of Ahn's supporters withdrawing from voting than would be the case for DUP supporters if their candidate lost.
"Ahn's supporters were instrumental in helping Park Won-soon become Seoul mayor so it is not likely they will vote for the Saenuri candidate, while, if Moon quits, DUP-leaning voters who were discouraged by their party's failure to field candidates for the Seoul mayoral bi-election and Gyeonggi Province gubernatorial race may decide not to vote at all.
Such a move can have serious consequences since most election watchers predict this year's victor will win by a very slim margin.
On the other hand, Myongji University's Kim said Ahn would be the more formidable candidate, because he can claim he is the force representing fresh change and new politics.
He added that Moon will be less successful in appealing to moderate voters and people with no party loyalties, due to his idealogical ties with the liberal party and late President Roh.
Roh is an icon of liberal and progressives but was not popular with a many people toward the end of his presidency.
The scholar added that while moderates may not support Moon, DUP adherents would cast their ballots for Ahn, if it means a change in power.
Saenuri presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye criticizes the liberal camp's move to pick a single candidate at a party gathering in Seoul on Nov. 7, 2012. (Yonhap)
The ruling party, meanwhile, moved to highlight its candidate's proven track record to overcome adversity and stressed that the 60-year-old is the leader the country needs to overcome economic troubles and uncertainty surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
"Park will not be affected by the single candidacy talks and will move forward according to her own pace with measures that can help improve the lives of Koreans," a close aide said.
He said Saenuri's strategy is to show it has a masterplan to tackle pressing agendas such as high household debt, the soaring cost of private education, and how to clamp down once and for all on corruption.
In addition, Park may increase her exposure to the public by visiting key cities such as Busan, where the liberals have expanded their influence.
"The visits will be aimed at swaying voters who are not affiliated with any party to vote for her instead of Moon or Ahn, by pointing out the many pitfalls of power-sharing and other complications that may arise if people with little or no experience take power," a party official said.