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(News Focus) Ahn's support for opposition hopeful fuels unpredictability in presidential race
By Lee Joon-sung
SEOUL, Dec. 7 (Yonhap) -- Former independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo's support for Moon Jae-in has fueled unpredictability in this year's presidential race with just 12 days remaining before the country picks a new chief executive, political observers said Friday.

   The announcement that the 50-year-old former entrepreneur and university professor will back the Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate breathed new hope into the country's liberal camp.

   "Before Ahn committed himself fully to helping Moon, there were grave concerns that the DUP standard bearer would 'easily lose' the election, but this has changed," said one senior party official, who declined to be identified.

   Polls taken after the start of official campaigning showed ruling Saenuri Party contender Park Geun-hye leading in most polls. Her initial average lead of 2-3 percentage points has widened to around 4-5 percentage points, with some surveys taken after the first televised debate on Tuesday revealing Park ahead 8-10 percentage points. Many pollsters said such an edge cannot be easily overcome this close to election day.

Saenuri presidential candidate Park Geun-hye waves to supporters at a rally in Seoul on Dec. 7, 2012. (Yonhap)

Reflecting the unpredictable nature of Ahn's reemergence on the election stage, a poll conducted by RealMeter late Thursday hours after Moon received a promise of full support from his former rival, showed the DUP candidate's approval rating going up 0.2 percentage points from the day before to 45.3 percent. Numbers for Park edged down 0.6 percentage points to 49.5 percent.

   "The poll, which was carried out on 1,000 people after informing them that Ahn promised to fully support Moon, reflects the joining of forces," said Lee Taek-soo, head of the polling company. He said, however, that more time will be needed before a clearer picture can be drawn to see if Moon is making a comeback.

   Reflecting the potential impact, Saenuri, which claimed it had prepared for such a development from the outset, blasted the "alliance" as old-fashioned political machination to grab power at all costs.

   Party spokesman Ahn Hyoung-hwan pointed out that only a few days ago, Ahn stressed that he had not "sold his soul" for the sake of political expediency, even though he has done exactly that.

   "Not a lot of time has passed since Ahn openly clashed with the DUP, and he accused the other side of foul play, yet now he has come out and is asking the public to support Moon for the sake of heralding a new era of political change," the official said.

   He said that Ahn has lost his appeal to the people by his unprincipled actions and giving support to a party and a candidate he acknowledged held different views from his own.

   Others said that Moon once again displayed his weakness and inability to stand alone and was unfit to govern the country.

   They said Moon needs to clarify who is the "real" opposition candidate running in this race because Ahn's presence was confusing voters.

   Highlighting this view, Park warned in a rally in Seoul earlier in the day that if people who do not share the same values and goals try to run the government through a power sharing arrangement, it will only cause confusion and lead to political infighting.

   Moon and Ahn showed they were at odds in a TV debate held on Nov. 21 on such issues as political reforms, economic democracy, trade and North Korea. Ahn also said he felt an "ideological difference" with Moon, and claimed he was a rational conservative and moderate progressive. Moon is viewed as being a traditional liberal, although he maintains policies that are designed to appeal to moderates.

   The 60-year-old daughter of late President Park Chung-hee said the next president will have to handle such issues as renegotiating the free trade agreement with the United States, deciding on carrying out work on a Navy base on Jeju Island, and other pressing issues.

   "If Moon wins, there will be the kind of in-fighting that existed under late President Roh Moo-hyun that is bound to delay actions being taken to improve the livelihood of the people," she said. Moon was chief of staff to Roh.

   The candidate claimed that in contrast, she will put all her energy into dealing with welfare and issues that directly affect everyday life.

   In response, the DUP countered that the conservatives are starting to worry that Ahn will overturn their plans to hold on to power and said the race has just begun.

DUP presidential contender Moon Jae-in greets supporters at a political rally on Jeju on Dec. 7, 2012. (Yonhap)

Rep. Lee In-young, chief of Moon's election office, said Ahn's participation has transformed the race into a fight between the old and the new.

   "Allowing Saenuri to hold on to power is a regression and return to old practices, while bringing about a change in government is a definite move toward change and progress," the lawmaker said.

   He argued that Moon is now the "candidate of the people" and not just a representative of the DUP.

   This view was echoed by Kim Boo-kyum, another senior campaigner for the DUP, who claimed the election has now been transformed into a race between those that want to keep the status quo and those that will strive to improve the livelihood of the people.

   "Ahn's full support effectively completes the single candidacy process and with the joining of other civic groups that launched the national alliance, the stage has been set for bringing about change," said the DUP candidate.

   The talks to select a unified candidate to compete against Park had broken down when Ahn quit unilaterally on Nov. 23. This hasty breakdown in talks showed when he declined to help Moon for the following two weeks.

   Ahn claimed that only if Moon takes power will there be a change in government because a victory by Park will translate into nothing more than a rotation of political forces that are linked to the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration.

   Meanwhile, local pollsters and political pundits were mixed on what impact Ahn will have on the ongoing race.

   Many said that while his assistance will help Moon, it may have come too late and there may be some opposition among Ahn's supporters. Cho Yong-kyung, a mentor and a senior official in Ahn's camp, said the former independent candidate betrayed the trust of the people by joining forces with Moon. Of the 12 members of the people's communication panel headed by Cho, nine said they opposed the merger.

   They pointed out that with the start of official campaigning, Park, who draws large crowds particularly in provinces, has started appealing directly to people and that seems to be translating into more support. In addition, the hosting of two more televised debates that can also draw large audiences will make Ahn less visible.

   Moreover, the planned launch of a long-range rocket by North Korea and the political impact this will have on the election will overshadow Ahn's activities.

   "Despite unfavorable circumstances, Moon's standing may move up 2-3 percentage points and that can narrow the gap between the two contenders," said an analyst for RealMeter. This he said can make the race unpredictable and, depending on other unexpected developments, could favor Moon.

   Others such as Dumun Political Strategy Institute director Lee Cheol-hee said Ahn could help opposition voters regain hope which would in turn translate into a very close race.

   He, however, said that despite such positive effects, there is just not enough time for the opposition to achieve an upset victory.

   "Ahn will give Moon a chance to close the gap, but it is up to the candidate to generate even more votes that are needed if he wants to win," the analyst said.

Ahn Cheol-soo (L), Moon Jae-in (Yonhap file photo)