SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's presidential election has become a two-way race between candidates from the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) with the withdrawal of independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo on Friday.
The move by the 50-year-old former software entrepreneur effectively ends the single candidacy debate that has swept all other issues in this year's presidential election, political pundits said.
The liberal camp said only one candidate should run because all polls showed Saenuri hopeful Park Geun-hye beating Ahn and DUP candidate Moon Jae-in if they both ran for the country's top elected office.
The sudden announcement of his withdrawal comes after Moon and Ahn held a televised debate late Wednesday to decide who should be the unified candidate for the liberal camp.
Independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo announces his withdrawl from the presidential race on Nov. 23, 2012. (Yonhap)
Negotiations after the debate between the two contenders and aides failed to make headway and resulted in Ahn's election co-chairwoman Park Sun-sook issuing an ultimatum on the phrase that the independent candidate wanted to use in the nationwide poll to decide the single candidate issue. Despite this, talks held between the two sides earlier in the day resulted in a deadlock, and with the Monday deadline for the negotiations fast approaching, Ahn took the step to withdraw from the race.
"Since Park and Moon are running neck-and-neck in nationwide surveys, and with pollsters predicting a very close race, the rival camps are expected to enhance their appeal to the voters, while at the same time stepping up attacks," a watcher said.
He said that with Ahn, who represents moderates and young voters disillusioned with politics, leaving the race, the Dec. 19 poll could escalate into a war involving two deceased presidents and the values and goals they represented.
Park is the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country for 18 years. He is credited with the country's rapid transformation from an economic backwater to an economic powerhouse, but is criticized for grabbing power through a military coup and for committing various human rights abuses.
Moon was a confidant of late President Roh Moo-hyun, having served in various senior advisory and secretarial posts including holding the chief of staff title. The chief executive committed suicide in 2009 after he was probed for suspected bribes received by his family, but is an icon for progressives. Roh, however, was not popular when he stepped down from office mainly because of the troubles facing the economy.
Park Chung-hee is revered by some for his drive to transform the country economically, while Roh is respected for making society more democratic and open.
The DUP has said that the people want an end to incompetence and corruption perpetuated by the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration and the Saenuri Party, while the ruling camp countered that voters don't want to return to the social friction and poor economic management experienced under the Roh administration.
Because the outcome of the race is far from certain, both sides used Ahn resignation to further their standing and downplay the opponent.
Rep. Jin Sung-joon, Moon's spokesman said Ahn made a meaningful decision by stepping down so a change in government can take place.
"We all own him a big debt," the lawmaker said.
The Saenuri Party, which had downplayed the single candidacy process, however, commented that Ahn's experiment to change politics was blocked by old-fashioned maneuvering by the DUP.
Ruling camp insiders, however, expressed concerns that winning the single candidacy may give Moon a lead in the polls vis-a-vis Park, although opinion is divided among local experts.
Hahm Sung-deuk, a public administration professor at Korea University, predicted that the lifting of uncertainty will consolidate liberal support for Moon that in the past was shared by Ahn.
"The effect should be considerable," he predicted.
On the other hand Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University, said the infighting between the two candidates dragged on too long and left the impression that the independent candidate was "pressed" to quit.
"Roughly 40 percent of the voters that supported Ahn can be seen as moderates with no party affiliation, and these people may switch their support to Park," he predicted.
Others said that 60-70 percent of Ahn voters will vote for Moon, with about 10 percent going over to Park and the rest opting not to vote altogether.
They added they will be a need to carefully watch how the two rival sides act after they formally register to become presidential candidates on Sunday and Monday.
Park Geun-hye (L), Moon Jae-in (Yonhap file photo)
Both sides will start campaigning in earnest on Tuesday.
Observers said that while all sides will try to highlight the various policy changes they will make, mud-slinging may become more intense.
Issue such as Park's controversial views on South Korea's modern history, particularly, those involving her late father and the uproar caused by allegations that President Roh disavowed the de facto sea border with North Korea in the 2007 summit may gain prominence.
The conservative party said Roh's statement is tantamount to surrendering national sovereignty and DUP presidential hopeful Moon must come forward with the truth on the allegations raised. The DUP said no such comments were made.