SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A popular software magnate has bowed out of South Korea’s presidential race, setting the stage for the main liberal opposition candidate to take on conservative front-runner Park Geun-hye in elections next month.
Independent Ahn Cheol-soo’s announcement Friday night ended a tense, weeklong tug of war between the two opposition figures on finding a single challenger to take on Park, the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee. It came after last-minute talks on merging campaigns with liberal Moon Jae-in appeared close to breaking down.
Ahn threw his support behind Moon and said he was withdrawing to keep his public promise to decide on a single candidate to challenge Park before formal registration for candidates begins Sunday.
‘‘It is important for me to become president and unfold a new kind of politics,’’ Ahn said. ‘‘However, keeping a promise I've made with the people is more important.’’
Media polls have shown neither Ahn nor Moon could defeat Park in the Dec. 19 elections if the race came down to three candidates, so it was seen as crucial to throw liberal and independent support behind a single person. Moon is a former human rights lawyer who served under former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun.
Current President Lee Myung-bak ends his single, five-year term in February. Term limits prevent Lee from running again.
Ahn, a political novice and bookish entrepreneur who made his fortune in software before turning to philanthropy, has been called South Korea’s Bill Gates. His political message rang true with many young people and with those disgruntled with traditional South Korean politics. Moon and Park are from South Korea’s two major political parties.
Despite his popularity, there had been skepticism about Ahn’s ability to govern a country of 50 million people that faces the ever-present threat of rival North Korea on its doorstep.
Ahn was 26 when he developed South Korea’s first antivirus program in 1988. He distributed the program to computer users for free. After working as a medical professor and a navy doctor, he established AhnLab with only a few employees in 1995; it has since grown into South Korea’s biggest information security company.
Ahn resigned as AhnLab’s chief executive officer in 2005, then taught management and entrepreneurship at universities.