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June 24, 2017

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SK presidential hopefuls merge against Park

SEOUL -- Independent Ahn Cheol-soo withdrew Friday from South Korea's presidential race, throwing his support behind the main opposition party candidate to take on conservative front-runner Park Geun-hye.

"I am giving up my presidential candidacy," Ahn told a hastily arranged press briefing, following weeks of often acrimonious merger talks with Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in.

"From now on, Moon Jae-in is the single liberal candidate," Ahn said, calling on his supporters to vote for Moon in the Dec. 19 ballot.

Both Ahn and Moon had come under intense pressure to merge their campaigns so as to avoid splitting the liberal vote and effectively handing the presidency to Park who has a lock on the country's conservative electorate.

Polls suggest Park from the ruling New Frontier Party would have easily won in the event of a three-horse race, but they put her neck and neck in a face-off with either Moon or Ahn.

Ahn's announcement came just days ahead of a Nov. 26 deadline for the final registration of presidential candidates.

But his sudden withdrawal took many by surprise as Ahn and Moon had been locked in negotiations to formulate an opinion poll to decide which of them would step down in favor of the other.

At one point, Ahn had suspended the merger talks, with his camp accusing Moon's campaign of lacking commitment to Ahn's main platform of political reform.

"Locking horns over the method of merging candidacies is not righteous for the people anymore," Ahn told Friday's press briefing, while promising to keep fighting for a "new politics."

In an apparent effort to smooth over their differences, Ahn said he would accept the blame for any apparent rift with the DUP camp.

The 50-year-old software mogul, who enjoys considerable support among young liberal voters, had entered the presidential race in September, positioning himself as an outsider untainted by party politics who represented a public desire for political and economic reform.

The position carried strategic weight given that Moon and Park are both closely associated with former presidents from opposite sides of South Korea's political spectrum.

Park is the daughter of South Korea's former military strongman Park Chung-hee, while Moon was chief of staff in the administration of former president Roh Moo-hyun.

Numerous analysts had predicted that Ahn, who has never contested an election or held political office, would stay in the race long enough to push his reformist agenda before stepping aside.

Moon's supporters had long argued that their man would make the better candidate as he has the party base and political experience necessary for the president in dealing with parliament.

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